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Lieberman Shows His Serious Side--Most of the Time

Profile: Senator conceals an engaging, personable demeanor as he champions ultra-earnest values. And he has aided the Clinton/Gore push toward the center.


WASHINGTON — Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman--best known to his colleagues as a relentlessly serious policy wonk, a devoutly religious man and moral scourge of all things violent in Hollywood--showed up in a surprising place last year.

The usually dour senator from Connecticut appeared at the 1999 "Funniest Celebrity in Washington" contest--and won. His oddly prescient shtick had him running for vice president, with comedian Al Franken at the top of the ticket.

One slogan for the all-Jewish ticket, Lieberman suggested: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your mother."

The episode is a tribute to the complexity of the man Al Gore has chosen to be his running mate. He has an engaging, personable side rarely seen on the floor of the Senate, where he has made ultra-serious values--political, religious and cultural--so central to his public persona that admirers call him the "conscience of the Senate."

He cuts a profile in personal rectitude that President Clinton could only dream of. Yet on policy grounds, he has been a soul mate in the Clinton-Gore drive to move the Democratic Party to the center on welfare, trade and other issues.

So in tapping Lieberman, Gore has chosen a close friend who embraces the base-broadening political legacy of the Clinton era while distancing himself from its moral transgressions.

A two-term senator and former state official, Lieberman--like Gore--is an experienced, policy-oriented politician. And like Gore, his low-key demeanor lacks sizzle on the stump. But Lieberman has spent his congressional career reaching across party lines--building ties to the GOP that could come in handy if the Gore-Lieberman ticket is elected.

His record mixes traditional liberal positions--support for abortion rights, gun control and strict environmental protection--with a broad portfolio of other issues in which he charts a more conservative course. Lieberman supported welfare reform, cuts in capital gains taxes, free trade policies and school vouchers. He is now head of the Democratic Leadership Council.

"He feels very comfortable in the middle of the spectrum," said Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.). "He doesn't reject ideas just because they happen to be from the other side of the aisle."

He has built his public life around a fundamental pillar of his private life: He is an observant Orthodox Jew who prays daily, keeps kosher and usually does not work on the Sabbath. On almost a daily basis, Lieberman has had to decide how to adhere to Jewish law. That challenge will be especially tough during the fall campaign season, which coincides with at least nine days of Jewish observances, including Yom Kippur. He'll also have to face it if the Gore-Lieberman ticket succeeds: Inauguration day 2001 is a Saturday.

During his first run for the Senate, Lieberman did not attend the Democratic state convention that nominated him because it took place on a Saturday. He sent a videotaped address.

But he does attend the Senate's occasional Saturday sessions, believing it is his duty to serve the public interest and a responsibility he cannot delegate. On those occasions--such as Clinton's impeachment trial and a crucial 1994 vote for California desert protection--Lieberman walks several miles from his home to the Capitol.

Lieberman's wife of 17 years, Hadassah, is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Together, they have one daughter. She has a son from a previous marriage. He has a son and a daughter from a previous marriage, which ended in divorce in 1982. His first marriage lasted 16 years, but his political life drove the couple apart.

Joseph Isadore Lieberman was born in 1942 in Stamford, Conn. The son of a liquor store owner, he attended public schools and then went to Yale University for his bachelor's and law degrees. He was elected to the Connecticut state Senate in 1970 and eventually became majority leader. He lost a 1980 bid for a U.S. House seat but two years later was elected state attorney general and built a record as an aggressive consumer advocate.

In 1988, he ran for the U.S. Senate against the popular liberal Republican, Lowell P. Weicker Jr. His 50%-49% victory over the three-term incumbent was the year's biggest upset. And in the midst of the 1994 Republican landslide, Lieberman won reelection with 67% of the vote.

In the Senate, Lieberman has been a solid ally of many of the Democratic Party's core constituencies. Environmentalists love him. "He is your basic hundred-percenter," said Debbie Sease, legislative director of the Sierra Club.

Gun-control advocates say much the same thing: He voted in 1993 for the Brady Act to establish a waiting period on handgun purchases and last year for a measure, since stalled, to crack down on unchecked sales of firearms at gun shows.

Lieberman has also come through for abortion-rights advocates, voting with the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League position 72 out of 74 times.

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