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Lieberman’s Legacy

The first Jewish vice presidential nominee in American history has been largely overlooked by the Jewish community in this country for the last 15 years.
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April 3, 2024
Former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), speaks at a “Stop Iran Rally,” regarding the Iran nuclear deal on September 1, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

About a week before he died, Joe Lieberman wrote an opinion piece in which he castigated Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer for Schumer’s criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu and called for new elections in Israel. Lieberman pulled no rhetorical punches, predicting that Israelis would dismiss Schumer’s declaration as “meaningless, gratuitous and offensive.”

But characteristically, even Lieberman’s strongest argument on behalf of his most important cause was interwoven with praise for Schumer himself. “I enjoyed working with Mr. Schumer during our years in the Senate together,” Lieberman wrote. “He is an excellent legislative leader and became a personal friend.”

As he had done throughout his career, Lieberman separated the actor from the action, the sinner from the sin. Reading his opinion piece, you could almost hear his sonorous voice, mournfully offering his unhappiness in sorrow rather than anger. If you listened closely, you could hear him speaking in the same doleful tone he used roughly a quarter century ago, when he became the first prominent Democrat to speak out against President Bill Clinton’s relationship with a White House intern. At that time, he was assailed by many of his fellow party members for his disloyalty. (Although Clinton himself never did so.) But two decades and a #MeToo movement later, most of them came around to where he had been all along. 

His public stance regarding Clinton was just one example of how these priorities caused him political trouble. Lieberman represented a now largely defunct national security wing in his party and like many Democrats, he was an early supporter of the Iraq War. So after three terms in the Senate, he was defeated in the 2006 Democratic primary when he sought reelection by an anti-war candidate who harshly criticized his hawkishness. 

Lieberman then decided to run as an independent and gained his fourth term in office. But his relationship with the Democratic Party was never the same. By the time he endorsed his friend John McCain for president in 2008, he had been largely excommunicated by his former party. For the last several years of his life, he served as an advisor to the No Labels third party movement.

Because of his unwillingness to toe a party line – for either party – Lieberman was marginalized and became a political afterthought. The first Jewish vice presidential nominee in American history has been largely overlooked by the Jewish community in this country for the last 15 years. But he never lost his affection for the Democratic Party or his loyalty to the Jewish community and to Israel, or ever stopped trying to help all of them do the right thing. Days before he passed, Lieberman was drafting a statement in which he was trying to persuade the Biden campaign not to take pro-Israel voters for granted. How ironic that this unfinished statement received more attention after his death than if it had been released when he was still alive.

For Lieberman, politics was moral but never personal. It was fought fiercely, but never nastily. It was highly principled but not blindly partisan. He was a kind and decent person who put his ideals above his party. 

For Lieberman, politics was moral but never personal. It was fought fiercely, but never nastily. It was highly principled but not blindly partisan. He was a kind and decent person who put his ideals above his party. Which sadly proved to be his political undoing.

Lieberman concluded his opinion piece on Schumer and Netanyahu by offering hope. After praising Schumer the man and leader, Lieberman then finished with the following words:

“But in this case, I believe he has made a grievous mistake. I hope he can find a way to say so and then lead his fellow Democrats to support Israel — and the shared values and interests of our two great democracies.”

Even when standing strongly for Israel, he found kind words for the friend who had disappointed him. Even when angry, he expressed hope for a better outcome. Even in his final words, Lieberman fought for his beliefs without demeaning his opponent or diminishing himself. In this ugly and nasty period of partisan division and polarization, such an approach is so exceedingly rare. It should make us wonder why we did not pay him the respect that he deserved while he could still hear it.


Dan Schnur is the U.S. Politics Editor for the Jewish Journal. He teaches courses in politics, communications, and leadership at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the monthly webinar “The Dan Schnur Political Report” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall. Follow Dan’s work at www.danschnurpolitics.com.

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