Lessons from Mr. Chutzpah

Sen. Joe Lieberman. Photo: NCLR

On the cusp of my seventh birthday, I remember standing eagerly beside my father at the Norfolk polls, tugging on his sleeve as he handed me his “Gore 2000” pin. My faint recollection of the 2000 election is comprised of just one other memory – at, of all places, my synagogue. My parents had dragged me to Rosh Hashana services at a time when I was struggling to develop confidence in my own identity as a minority in Virginia, where nearly all of my friends were of different faiths. From the conversations around me, I gathered that the next Vice President of the United States might be Jewish – just like me.

Twelve years later, on a bitterly cold January morning, the lonely retiring Senator Joe Lieberman ascended the steps of Capitol Hill to cast his final vote in the Senate with little fanfare or attention. How did this former Vice-Presidential nominee, considered a decade ago to be the heir to Clintonian liberal leadership, fall into political irrelevance and become all but forgotten by the American public?

Joe Lieberman has a story to be told. Ultimately, the fate of his career was doomed by precisely what made him great, his defining trait: chutzpah. Likewise, his career defined by this trait holds three valuable lessons that every newcomer to Congress this month should heed.

Chutzpah is a quirky Yiddish word. While understood to mean courageous nerve or “guts”, it is in fact untranslatable because no other word in any language describes audacity to such a degree. One would never expect chutzpah from Joe, who bears an eerie resemblance to the manipulative Emperor Palpatine, Star Wars’ Dark Lord of the Sith. His breakthrough as a national figure began, fittingly, with nothing but an act of true chutzpah from an old friend.

Lesson I: Leadership
What’s Right Is Not Always Popular

Presidential candidate Al Gore made history in 2000 by choosing Joe as his running mate for Vice-President. Just as Barack Obama broke political barriers for African-Americans and Geraldine Ferraro for women, Joe Lieberman’s vice-presidential candidacy was groundbreaking. Lieberman was the first and only Jewish-American to ever be nominated on a major party ticket – a “Baruch Obama”, if you will.

Remarkably, Gore picked Joe precisely because of his chutzpah. In 1998, Lieberman had been the first Democrat in the Senate to speak out against President Clinton’s actions in the Lewinsky scandal. Other Democrats lacked the political courage to do so, but Joe chose leadership over expedience, and many of his peers followed him thereafter.

Such a man who put principle before popularity was a great pick for Gore who, in the pre-Romney era, seemed like the ultimate robotic, political opportunist (little did we know that robotic comments about binders of women lay in store for us 12 years later).

Gore’s pick was risky. Many in the campaign had doubts about how America would react. He was not only a Jew – he was an Orthodox Jew. He kept Kosher dietary restrictions and observed the Sabbath, thereby not campaigning on many Saturdays despite the tight race, but Americans welcomed the diversity.  For Jews around the world, a people who had struggled for thousands of years to be accepted in any nation and who were still only two generations removed from the Holocaust, Gore’s pick was monumental.

Indeed, in 2008, when then-candidate Barack Obama took brief respite from his Presidential run to cast a summer Senate vote, he pulled Joe aside and – despite tensions between them -reportedly said, “Look…I understand that one of the reasons I have the opportunity I have now is because of what you’ve done in the past. Thank you.”

Joe was the perfect VP nominee because he represented the antithesis to the party image damaged by President Clinton’s Oval Office debauchery. As the campaign progressed, it seemed that his presence on the ticket  was strongly helping to position Gore for victory. In fact, Gore/Lieberman would prevail over Bush/Cheney by over half a million votes nationally…yet would lose the White House thanks to a 537 vote win for Bush in Florida.

But that’s another story for another column.

Lesson 2: Bipartisanship
Stop Fighting and Start Fixing

After the campaign, Joe returned to the Senate, and in an era of politicians not working with the other party or speaking out against their own, Lieberman became the only Senator to do so. Though a Democrat at heart, he endured the wrath of his party for siding with Republicans on Iraq and other foreign policy issues.

In fact, when Joe began a presidential run of his own in 2004, he knowingly doomed himself to lose to weak candidates such as John Kerry in the Democratic primaries by refusing to be more critical of Republican foreign policy. To Joe, a different letter next to your name never meant your opinions were any less valid. Though he became an Independent in 2006 after his own party grew frustrated with his bipartisanship, the biggest game-changer of all came one year later.

A game-changer that was simply unprecedented in modern politics.

In late 2007, just seven years after serving as standard-bearer of the Democratic Party, lifelong Democrat Joe Lieberman endorsed lifelong Republican John McCain for President of the United States.

That, my friends, is chutzpah.

In what was perhaps one of the most defining statements of his career, Joe prefaced the endorsement he was about to make with the following statement:

“You know, political parties are important in our country. But they’re not more important than what’s best for our country, they’re not more important than friendship, and they’re not more important than our future.”

McCain, who was a bit of a party-blind maverick himself until 2008, actually wanted to select Joe as his Vice-Presidential nominee to form a historic bipartisan Presidential ticket. Yet when the time for a decision neared – as the best-selling history of the election, Game Change, reveals – his aides convinced him that Joe’s pro-choice stance would infuriate Republicans too much, so he made a last-minute switch to a little-known hockey mom named Sarah Palin.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Joe nearly became the first person in American history to run on the presidential ticket of two different parties. To all who knew him as the most likely Senator to work across party lines in America, his place in that historical footnote couldn’t have been any more fitting.

Lesson 3: Friendship
Bros Before Foes

In an earlier era, liberal Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill could often be found joking with President Reagan behind closed doors, and congressional leaders from across the aisle often ended a long day on Capitol Hill with a game of poker and a round of cigars. Today, the social dynamics could hardly be more different.

Still, nothing in Washington today comes closer to those days of political camaraderie than  “The Three Amigos.” Senators Joe Lieberman, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain together form The Three Amigos – Washington’s most famous trifecta of bromance and leadership. As Lieberman’s career ends, so does this final vestige of bipartisan political brotherhood.

Even when McCain and Lieberman were both considered future presidential nominees who one day might even face each other, their friendship that began in the 1990s only continued to solidify. As Graham joined the Senate in 2002, the three emerged as leading voices on foreign policy for the decade to come.

More than that, the three became inseparable. From the battlefields of Afghanistan to the monasteries of Bhutan, they traveled around the world together. Even on days when Joe fought them on liberal causes, come evening the Grahams and the McCains would often be out joking with the Liebermans over dinner.

The New York Times even reported that these three old men even laughed together…watching Borat.

Cultural elites love to lament that Washington is broken because of a lack of bipartisanship. But if there’s anything Joe and The Three Amigos showed, it’s that Washington is now missing friendship across the aisle, too.

A final anecdote: often on a Friday night after a long day at work, Senator John McCain (R) and Senator Lindsey Graham (R) walked  Senator Joe Lieberman (D) to his home after dark so that he would not be observing a stricture of the Jewish Shabbat alone. Joe always walked the several miles to his Washington residence in the company of friends.

This last month, Joe Lieberman took his final Friday night walk home.

Joe’s final speech on the Senate floor was sparsely attended, and his retirement this month scarcely noted. But, thanks to his chutzpah – he will not only be remembered for his unique  political career, but for his adherence to old notions of friendship and leadership that, we can only hope, a new generation of politicians will learn to likewise embrace.

Thank you, Joe – you will be missed. After all…Washington could use a little chutzpah.

You can offer questions or comments at jacobl@sas.upenn.edu. For more politics, wit, and a little boyish humor, you can follow the author on Twitter @jacobmlevy.

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