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Bubehleh Hits the Campaign Trail

Joe Lieberman's doting 85-year-old mother, Marcia, is proving formidable on the stump.

October 27, 2000|DANA CALVO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 85, Marcia Lieberman doesn't "campaign" for her son. She "visits." She isn't merely mentioned in his speeches. She stars in them. And if you get to know her well enough, you can drop the Mrs. Lieberman moniker for Baba, which is Yiddish for "grandma."

This is a race in which the two presidential candidates emerged from political dynasties driven by Washington-wise mothers. But Marcia Lieberman, mother of the Democratic vice presidential candidate, blissfully admits she has no experience in national politics.

By Beltway standards, maybe she doesn't have a pedigree. But she has credentials of a different sort--those of the quintessential Jewish mother--that stand out in the shark-infested waters of the campaign.

This week, she began her most extensive series of "visits," to six states in three days, including battlegrounds such as Florida and Wisconsin. She wades in with gusto, protected by a fierce maternal instinct and distracted only by the fear that her only son, Joseph, isn't getting enough sleep.

"I always worry about my children," she said. "Mothers never stop."

In August, hours after Vice President Al Gore publicly announced the candidacy of Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman in his hometown of Stamford, Conn., Marcia asked her son for a ride home from the ceremony. The senator helped her into a sedan in the 50-car motorcade, which then took off for the family's modest home. As she got out of the car, Marcia struggled with her arthritic knees. Even so, her hospitality was unfailing. "Joseph," she told her 58-year-old son, "invite your friends in for coffee and cake."

Arguing with his mother about whether the vice president had time to nosh, he would explain later, was simply not an option.

"Vice President Gore came to the house, and my friend had brought a cheesecake, and he enjoyed the cheesecake and looked around the house where Joseph grew up," she said, beaming. "He was a wonderful guest. He stayed nearly an hour. I've lived here 50 years and never done any remodeling. Not even in the kitchen."

Remodeled kitchen or not, for Marcia Lieberman, food has always served as the ultimate deal-maker. A few weeks into the campaign, she read a newspaper editorial that was critical of her son and then heard a radio announcer describe him as "sounding tired." She could no longer remain quiet after seeing him on television and noting that he had lost a few pounds. As Sen. Lieberman told a group of seniors at a New Jersey retirement home, he could hear the irritation in his mother's voice when he made his nightly call to her.

"Do you really need this?" she asked.

He reassured her he that he could handle the demands of the campaign. But she would leave nothing to chance. Marcia Lieberman put together individual care packages for the reporters following her son around the country. In each box of candy, raisins, bagel chips, lip balm, tissues, Tylenol and an apple, she slipped a handwritten note that read: "To my friends in the media: Please be good to my son! Enjoy. Marcia Lieberman (Joe's mom!)"

She has also hit the campaign trail with her grown grandchildren. Last month, she visited elderly voters while Joseph's son, Matthew, 33, pushed her through the room in a wheelchair. "[Matthew] was my straight man. It was a lot of fun, and because he was with me I sort of loosened up a little," she said.

This week, she headed to Lakeland, Fla. with Joseph's oldest daughter, Rebecca, 31. The two Lieberman women appealed to female voters to vote for the Gore-Lieberman ticket.

"I always say she's the original, natural politician in the family," Sen. Lieberman told Regis Philbin during a televised interview this month.

But unlike the mothers of Al Gore and George W. Bush, both of whom have also been campaigning for their sons, Marcia Lieberman never socialized with politicians. Her world, instead, revolved around family.

Her formal education ended with a high school diploma. ("I thought that was an achievement in 1932.") In 1940, she married Henry Lieberman, a bakery truck driver. Eventually, he opened his own liquor store and ran it for decades until three robberies convinced him it was time to retire.

Henry and Marcia Lieberman took their first vacation in 1955. ("We went to the Catskills for the weekend.")

The Liebermans raised Joseph and his two younger sisters, Ellen and Rietta, as Orthodox Jews. The children's political education was based on the daily newspapers their father read from front to back.

It was a drastically different life from that of Gore's mother, Pauline, who became the first woman to graduate from Vanderbilt Law School and then channeled her ambition into supporting her husband, Albert Gore Sr. He was a Tennessee politician who would ultimately serve in the U.S. Senate for 17 years. It's also a world away from first lady Barbara Bush, who married the son of a wealthy senator. Her husband's work placed her squarely in a clique of CIA and West Wing decision makers. Destinies in those families seemed predetermined.

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