It’s just days into the 113th Congress and there’s already a shadow over the Hill.
Lawmakers come and go, and that’s the nature of the political beast. But missing in the halls of the Capitol is a senator who had served in the upper chamber since 1989.
And it’s hard not to miss Joe Lieberman, the 70-year-old Democrat-turned-independent from Connecticut, who retired last week.
“When I started here in the Senate, a BlackBerry was a fruit and tweeting was something only birds did,” Lieberman quipped in his farewell speech last month.
He reminisced about how he first stepped in the chamber as an intern nearly 50 years ago, in the summer of 1963 — “inspired, like so many of my generation, by President John F. Kennedy and his call to service.”
“And although I would never have admitted so publicly back then, because it was so presumptuous, I came away from that experience with the dream that I might someday, somehow, return to serve in this place,” Lieberman said. “Well, I have been blessed to live that dream. And that is what America is about.”
When he ended his terms in the Senate, Lieberman had made a number of foes out of party-mates who were supposed to be his friends, simply for believing that a caucus meeting didn’t mean one left his personal convictions at the door.
A few things to miss about Lieberman:
He put his friends before party. “The Three Amigos” was a cutesy way to refer to Lieberman, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), but the brothers in national security policy really were an example to the rest of the chamber. When McCain ran for president in 2008, he nearly tapped Lieberman as his running mate. But more importantly, he had the support of his friend no matter what.
Boy, did he have the support: Lieberman spoke for his buddy at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. “In the Senate, during the 3 1/2 years that Sen. Obama has been a member, he has not reached across party lines to … accomplish anything significant, nor has he been willing to take on powerful interest groups in the Democratic Party to get something done,” Lieberman told the excited GOP delegates.
In return, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) threatened to strip Lieberman of his Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee chairmanship. Lieberman — clearly the most qualified for that job — mostly survived the petty retribution attempt, keeping his chairmanship but getting kicked off the Environment and Public Works Committee. There’s just something about a politician who will lay down his chairmanship for the sake of a friend.
He stuck it to the party and stayed independent. After besting anti-war Democratic chosen one Ned Lamont as an independent in 2006, Lieberman remained cordial with the Democratic caucus — yet kept that “I” after his name. He somewhat caucused with the Dems, but after what they did to him in 2008 he stopped attending caucus lunches or strategy sessions. Of course, he was still subjected to silly tantrums like when Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), presiding over the upper chamber one day in 2009, cut off a Lieberman speech by both casting the objection for the senator’s request to continue and approving it as presiding officer. McCain, of course, took to the floor in defense of his friend. “That’s how the comity in this body has deteriorated,” McCain told reporters afterward. “We got to stop – we got to stop this kind of behavior. I’ve never seen anything like it. And I hope that I don’t see it again.”
He’s real about his religion and not ashamed of it. In the first winter after I moved to Washington, Snowmageddon hit the area in the form of one blizzard before Christmas and one in early February. Reid called the upper chamber in for a Saturday session during the earlier storm, which meant Lieberman needed to tromp three miles through deep snow on the Sabbath to make it in for the vote. I was the weekend editor at The Hill at the time, and my reporter on duty asked if he could make the trip in alongside Lieberman. The senator declined, stating that he didn’t want to make a story out of an exercise of his Orthodox faith.
With Lieberman gone, God will get fewer hat tips on the Senate floor — the Man Upstairs was a frequent mention in his floor speeches. All the while, he kept many liberals quaking at the thought that he was trying to usher in a Religious Left. “As a people, we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God’s purposes,” Lieberman said on the campaign trail in 2000. “The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. I say there must be and can be a constitutional place for faith in our public life.” That drew a rebuke for the Jewish lawmaker from the Anti-Defamation League.
Lieberman wrapped up his faith nicely in his 2011 book, The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath. “The Sabbath is an old but beautiful idea that, in our frantically harried and meaning-starved culture, cries out to be rediscovered and enjoyed by people of all faiths,” he writes in the book, as a politician in a town where rest is a bad word. “The Sabbath was given as a gift from God to everyone.”
Can you even remember when he was Al Gore’s running mate? Democrats like to say Ronald Reagan wouldn’t cut it as a GOP nominee in today’s Republican Party. Would Lieberman have stood a snowball’s chance of being picked as Gore’s running mate today? The senator is an example not just of a shifting party, but of a man who grew by facing the challenges that would be thrown at him after that race, and sticking to his principles.
He’s a gentleman in a world of non-gents. To many Democrats who felt betrayed by Lieberman’s brave move that undercut their primary ouster, every word that came out of the senator’s mouth was heresy. Whenever I heard Lieberman was about to speak, I had to stop and listen. Regardless of party, he’s how one considers the gentleman senator to be: a man of conviction who had studied the issue at hand and had a wise, respectful argument to offer, even if the listener disagrees. He was not a backstabber and is a man of his word, yet still is branded as Satan by those who haven’t forgiven him for the defeat of Lamont.
Yes, they don’t make Dems like Lieberman anymore.
There weren’t many of Lieberman’s colleagues on the floor to hear his 20-minute farewell, prompting the same pundits who delighted in needling the senator since his 2006 feat to brand his parting as sad and insignificant. But Lieberman’s words weren’t so Senate-centric.
“Long before the United States came into being as a government of institutions and laws, it was a dream — a dream, an implausible and incredible dream, of a country not defined by its borders or its rulers or the ethnicity of its founders, but by a set of eternal and universal principles — that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are God’s endowment to each of us,” he said. “…I leave this chamber as full of faith in the dream called America, as when I stood here nearly a quarter of a century ago to take the oath of office for the first time.”
Not that he didn’t have some sage, vintage-Lieberman advice for the 100 senators in the 113th Congress.
“Do not underestimate the impact you could have by getting involved in matters of foreign policy and national security—whether by using your voice to stand in solidarity with those who are struggling for the American ideal of freedom in their own countries across the globe, or working to strengthen the foreign policy and national security institutions of our own country, or by rallying our citizens to embrace the role that we as a country must play on the world stage, as both our interests and our values demand,” Lieberman said.
“None of the challenges we face today, in a still dangerous world, is beyond our ability to meet.”