WASHINGTON — Joe Lieberman is a man of the middle.
For him it is a righteous place where he melds viewpoints to find a voice.
Since he was 13, Lieberman has studied the Talmud, which prompts the examination of what different outlooks have in common. In college, where quotas stamped him an outsider, he rose as a leader by bringing together those around him. His political mentor was a Connecticut ward-heeler who ruled by sharing power with his opponents. As majority leader of his state Senate, he had to reach across the aisle to get things done.
He came to Washington at the start of a blood feud between Democrats and Republicans, and found allies among other Democrats who believed their survival lay at the political center. He engaged in odd-couple politics with conservatives of both parties--with a leading Republican moralist to jab at Hollywood, then with a Louisiana Democrat to fight for education reform.
Most famously, Lieberman scolded his president on the floor of the Senate for his prevarications about an affair with a White House intern. Lieberman's speech, which stopped short of asking the president to step down, helped save the president's job and showed his party the way out of scandal.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 21, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 5 Foreign Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Buckley background--A story Friday about Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman incorrectly characterized the ethnic and religious background of writer William F. Buckley. He is Irish Catholic.
Due in large part to his moderating and moralizing, Lieberman became Al Gore's choice for a running mate--and a star among Jewish people. Their immigrant story of persecution and dislocation left an indelible mark on Lieberman, and his appreciation for what America had provided his family would forever propel him.
Still, there were losses, public and private, that stalled his high-reaching life plan. In a short period, he was divorced and lost an election by allowing himself to be pushed to the left. But political adaptability and religious conviction brought him back. He remarried, to a woman who deeply shared his conservative faith and went on to defeat a Republican icon in the U.S. Senate by ridiculing his demeanor and outflanking him on the right.
After he was sworn in as a U.S. senator, his wife, whose family survived the Holocaust, thrust her fist into the air and declared with defiance: "Take that, Hitler."
Like many politicians, Joseph Isador Lieberman, 58, is a man of principle and of calculation. But does he gravitate to the center because it is correct--or because it makes him successful? What is uppermost: to be fair-minded or to win?
That is the Lieberman question.
"I've wanted to do the right thing, but I've wanted to make things happen," Lieberman answers in an interview. "Hopefully it doesn't require too much compromise of principle, hopefully no compromise of principle. But it does require compromise of position."
Lieberman is ambitious, but he is so high-minded that he usually avoids giving offense. He courts adversaries with intelligence, not browbeating. That courtship is the story of his life. And it suggests dimensions to the Lieberman answer.
Strong Sense of Self Built From Childhood
When Marcia and Henry Lieberman took their newborn son to a small house wedged between a junkyard and the railroad tracks in Stamford, Conn., they brought him to the center of a close-knit world.
Cousins lived across the street. Agudath Sholom, a red-brick Orthodox synagogue, was a half-mile away. The family-owned package store, as liquor stores are called in New England, was on nearby Hamilton Avenue. Stamford High, where Joe would be elected prom king, was a few blocks from the synagogue.
Until Joe was 8, the Liebermans lived with Marcia's mother, Minnie Manger. A pious woman, her memories of central Europe gave the boy a view of an uglier past, of anti-Semitism and deprivation. But in this new land, her grandson was the doted-upon prince, surrounded by affection and enriched by rules of comportment. The family walked to synagogue. Rituals marked a year. Prayer began meals. The children were indulged.
Joseph Ehrenkranz, the family rabbi, remembers admonishing Marcia for allowing Joe and his two younger sisters to watch television until they fell asleep, then carrying them to bed.
"Everybody was criticizing her because there was no discipline in that house," he said. "But she felt she was giving them a desire to excel. Everything else would fall into place."
In the same way Pauline Gore and Barbara Bush provided ballast for their sons' political character, the outgoing Marcia shaped Joe's sense of self. Possessed of self-confidence and sociability, she opened her home to his friends, urging on them homemade nut bread and ruggalach.
While his father, Henry, was less religious than his wife, he held strong opinions. For 40 years, this former orphan who received little formal education spent quiet afternoons in Hamilton Liquors reading books and listening to Strauss' tone poems and to Brahms' Third Symphony.
In his memoir, Lieberman described his longing to make his father proud: "There was no way in the world I was going to let him down. I had to succeed."