St. Joe Faces the Image Crunch

For Joseph Lieberman, elevated to a kind of sainthood by a press corps enraptured by his Orthodox Judaism and his image of rectitude, the next few weeks could offer some harsh splashes of reality.
August 31, 2000

For Joseph Lieberman, elevated to a kind of sainthood by a press corps enraptured by his Orthodox Judaism and his image of rectitude, the next few weeks could offer some harsh splashes of reality. Lieberman the paragon could find himself challenged by Lieberman the tough and ambitious politician. Lieberman also faces potential clashes with Jewish leaders who want him to live up to his iconic status among American Jews – and who will expect him to support all of their pet causes.

That clash was evident last week when Lieberman – in one of his first statements after his selection – said he would not move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem now because of its potential impact on the peace talks, a 180-degree turn from his earlier position.

In public, Jewish leaders kept quiet; in private, some fumed that Lieberman was bending over backward to show that he doesn’t put Jewish and Israeli interests above the U.S. national interest.

Later, the Anti-Defamation League sent a letter to Sen. Joseph Lieberman calling on the U.S. Democratic vice presidential candidate to keep religion out of the presidential campaign (see editorial, p. 4).

“Appealing along religious lines, or belief in God, is contrary to the American ideal,” the ADL letter said. The letter came a day after Lieberman told an audience at an African American church in Detroit that Americans need to renew the “dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God’s purpose.” The ADL sent a similar letter last year to the eight Republican and Democratic candidates for president after several candidates made statements emphasizing their religious beliefs.

Republicans also began cautiously chipping away at Lieberman’s too-good-to-be-true image by pointing out changes in key positions to bring him in line with the ticket headliner, Vice President Al Gore.

“In the past week he’s proven that he’s just another politician,” said Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican National Coalition, a partisan group. “On issue after issue – from the embassy issue to standing up against quotas, which hurt the Jewish community – he’s given in to the positions of Al Gore.”According to Brooks, the snow-white image has already been soiled by political expedience.

“Obviously the Lieberman everybody knew and loved is not the Joe Lieberman who’s running with Al Gore,” he said.

Other observers noted that Lieberman is one of the Senate’s champion fundraisers, a status that could run afoul of the public’s growing distaste for big-money politics.

Issues flip-flops are standard operating procedure for vice presidential nominees, said Johns Hopkins University political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg. “Vice presidential candidates always walk a thin line between looking like they have no principles and taking positions that differ with those of their presidential candidates.”

But the risks could be greater for Lieberman, whose whole political persona is based on his image as someone above mere politics, Ginsberg said.

“He is a man of principle who takes religion very seriously – as the media has reminded us countless times in the past week,” he said. “So there may be a stronger danger that a misstep could hurt him.”Lieberman’s saintly image addresses Gore’s need to distance himself from the low moral standard of the Clinton administration, he said – but it also entails risk that he could be knocked off his pedestal.”Lieberman has made a career in politics, which means he’s been willing to compromise, to be tough with people,” he said. “Very few saints have risen high on the ladder in American politics.”

Traditionally, vice presidential candidates play the attack dog role for their tickets. Few observers expect Lieberman to do that – but most say there will be enough brawling to remind voters that he is a real politician, after all.

Lieberman himself said he is not going to worry about the possible clash between his pure image and everyday politics.

“I can only be myself, and try to do this as well as I humanly can,” he said last week during a news conference with Jewish reporters. “My religion is important to me; I try my best to be faithful to it and strengthened by it. But I have never misunderstood the fact that I am a very imperfect being, so if I stumble, it’s human.”

The candidate, the first Jew to run on a major party ticket, will also likely face conflict over his relationship with the Jewish community.

Many Jewish leaders, prideful over Lieberman’s landmark achievement but also hopeful that the candidate will boost their interests, will try to exert a kind of ownership over him.

But Lieberman is playing on a much broader stage, and the Jewish electorate is far from being the most critical one in the Democratic election strategy.

“Every Jewish leader in America thinks they’re Joe Lieberman’s best friend,” said a prominent Democratic consultant. “The poor guy is going to be swamped by requests for the Jewish community. He’ll need a full-time Jewish liaison in charge of just saying ‘no’ to the Jews.”

Jewish groups will expect far more time from Lieberman than he’s likely to offer, this source said. “He can’t possibly do all the events they’ll want him to do or support all the things they want him to support.”That could include support on core issues for Jewish groups such as moving the U.S. embassy in Israel – an issue he once championed.

Lieberman has already clashed with the expectations of much of the Orthodox world by vigorously opposing the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. His casual offer to meet with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan privately angered many Jewish leaders; his comments praising Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan as a “bright, interesting guy who has been misinterpreted” was like a slap in the face to some.

Democratic insiders say Lieberman does want to make it clear to the public that he is not a tool of the big Jewish groups, and that he will continue to seek issues where he can comfortably disagree with them.”Joe Lieberman has always kept his distance,” said an official with a major Jewish group. “He’s been supportive, but our relationship with him has always been something of an arm’s length one, even when he was relatively new in the Senate. Now he has even more reason to maintain a good but cool relationship.”Jewish groups have to walk a delicate line, according to political consultant and Kean University professor Gilbert Kahn.

“It’s incumbent on the Jewish community to keep seeing issues through its special prism,” he said. “But Joe Lieberman has a different tableau to look at; because of the national position he aspires to, he cannot conduct himself as the advocate for the Jewish community. For the Jewish community to presume that he should is not reasonable.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that the irony for Joe Lieberman is this: “He has lived in the real world of politics as an observant Jew without making a big deal about it. That’s the beauty of his nomination – but now, his Jewishness is the thing everybody is focused on.”That could make life even harder for Lieberman as his role as a moral paragon crashes headlong into the realities of presidential politics.

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