Joe Lieberman Is a Modern Day Profile in Courage

Lieberman found that two parties are no better than one.

By SHARE

In 1955, Sen. John F. Kennedy, with a powerful (some say determinative) assist from his principal aide, Ted Sorensen, produced a book that became an instant classic. In contrast to the dribble that so many aspiring presidential hopefuls have brought forth since, Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage remains in print and in the curricula of schools more than a half century after its publication.

Its endurance flows from its timeless theme. Taking as their focus eight United States Senators who found themselves at odds with the prevailing opinion of their political party, their constituents, or both, Kennedy (and Sorensen) ventured into an age-old debate over the proper role of representatives in a democratic society. Should they primarily reflect the wishes of the people who elected or, in the days before the direct election of U.S. Senators, appointed them to their posts? Or should they bring into the chamber’s deliberations the benefits of their life experience, their particular expertise, and the strengths of their convictions--even when the latter cause them to vote against popular sentiment.

Edmund Burke, in his famous address to the electors of Bristol in 1774 made clear where he stood on the matter. “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” Kennedy and Sorensen put themselves firmly in Burke’s camp. In deciding to make the demonstration of courage in face of intense opposition the scope of their investigation, they took care to note that they did not necessarily agree with each of the stands their subjects took.

The obvious case in point was Robert A. Taft’s opposition to the Nuremberg trials. Kennedy’s decision to write about this episode and in sympathy with the Ohio Senator a decade after so many of Hitler’s henchmen were tried and found guilty of war crimes was in itself a demonstration of courage on the part of a man preparing to run for president. [See five lessons from Eisenhower's farewell and JFK's inaugural.]

Using Kennedy and Sorensen’s criteria, no present day U.S. Senator is more deserving of the title “profile in courage,” than Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut. Lieberman will leave office the last of a particular breed. He is national security hawk in a party that has grown skeptical of the use of force. He continues to believe in “American exceptionalism” when most Democrats do not. He stands out for his repeated displays of civility in a Senate that has become increasingly more strident, more partisan, and increasingly out of touch with the concerns of most Americans. With Barry Goldwater, Pat Moynihan, Henry Jackson, and Ted Kennedy all gone, Lieberman may be the one “authentic” in a chamber that has attracted more than its share of phonies. (I would venture to guess that he does not own a blow dryer.)

Lieberman traces his interest in politics to the John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. As he made his way into the political thicket, he did more than read Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. He tried to live it. On the biggest issues of his times, Joe Lieberman stayed true to what he believed. Had he been more of a political chameleon and been willing to move with the political winds that were pushing his party leftward, Lieberman would be running for his fifth term to the United States Senate, assuming, of course, that he had not been elected vice president or president by now. [See editorial cartoons about the Democrats.]

Lieberman’s problems with his fellow Democrats began with his outspoken and steadfast support for the American invasion of Iraq. With casualties mounting and progress appearing a distant hope seemed a distant hope (in the pre-Petraeus, pre-“surge” era), Lieberman penned an op-ed to the Wall Street Journal, in which he beseeched his fellow Democrats to support the war. This proved too much for his left in his party to abide. A wealthy insurgent, fueled by a coalescing of anti-war and other activists, showing a particular savvy for social networking, defeated Lieberman in the Democratic primary. Absent a strong GOP contender, Lieberman prevailed in three-way race. He cobbled together what would prove a one time winning coalition out of lunch-pail Democrats and local Democratic machines that had profited by Lieberman’s capacity to bring home federal funds, as well as Republicans, and independents, attracted by Lieberman’s personal biography and name recognition. [See editorial cartoons about Republicans.]

Returned to the Senate as an independent, Lieberman remained a member of good standing in the Democratic caucus. His problems within his party might have ended there, had he not, in the view of many Democrats, committed four cardinal sins. He endorsed Republican presidential nominee, John McCain for president in 2008; addressed the 2008 GOP convention; criticized Barack Obama’s ill-preparation for the presidency, and worst of all, for a time worked to torpedo Obamacare--after the new president requested that Senate Democrats return Lieberman as chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security Committee despite his having committed the other heresies mentioned above.

Like Ronald Reagan, who also began his career as a national security Democrat, Lieberman could legitimately claim that his party had left him more than the other way around. Unlike Reagan, however, Lieberman never felt comfortable with the views of Republicans with whom he so often sided on matters of war and peace.  While he made his case for war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Lieberman not only sided with his fellow Democrats on cap-and-trade, repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” taxes, and matters pertaining to gun control and abortion, but he led the charge on them. [See a gallery of photos commemorating Reagan's 100th birthday.]

Lieberman was as deeply committed to these matters as he was to a strong American presence in the world.  His support for them was sufficient enough to cause key Republicans to block his selection as John McCain’s running mate in 2008. (McCain had made known to all within ear shot--and many who were not--that he most wanted to run with Lieberman.) Had he joined the Republicans’ ranks in the Senate, Lieberman would have transformed himself over night from the Senate’s most conservative Democrat to its most liberal Republican.  He could well have become the first U.S. Senator in history to lose primary elections in both political parties.

Lieberman was never one to sacrifice his judgment to anyone else’s opinion. If as John Kennedy observed, “sometimes party loyalty asks too much,” Lieberman found that two parties could be worse than one. This gracious and gentle man will leave the Senate a genuine “profile in courage.”

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