Does Lieberman give Gore moral absolution?

Posted: Aug 08, 2000 12:00 AM
It may sound peculiar for a Protestant to turn to a Jew for a Catholic dispensation, but that's what seems to explain Vice President Gore's selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman as his running mate. Gore, after all, is suffering from a number of political disabilities -- he is condescending, wooden and, despite what Bill Bradley said about him, quite a doctrinaire liberal. But his greatest liability is undoubtedly his umbilical tie to President Clinton and to Clintonism. It isn't just that Al Gore praised Bill Clinton as "one of the greatest presidents in American history" on the day the House of Representatives voted out bills of impeachment. It is his adoption of casual lying as a political tactic that marks him as a true Clinton acolyte. The selection of Lieberman is clearly intended to wash Gore clean of the Clinton taint. But it's hard to see how Lieberman can really help. (The selection is obviously not a bid for the Jewish vote, which the Democrats usually garner 70 percent to 80 percent of anyway). In addition to being one the most amiable men in the Senate (this year's vice presidential debate is going to be the most polite and gentlemanly in history), Lieberman is the closest thing the Democratic Party has to a religious conscience. Though the Republican Party has abundant numbers of prominent ministers and religious figures in office and/or closely associated with the party (which has helped and hurt the Republicans), the Democrats have only the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Joe Lieberman, the well-known Orthodox Jew. Unlike most American Jews who take a cafeteria approach to Jewish ritual, the Orthodox are what you might call "strict constructionists." Lieberman, like other Orthodox Jews, will not travel, work or use a telephone on the Sabbath. The example of a religious man adhering to religious law even in the heat of a presidential campaign cannot fail to earn respect. Almost alone among major Democratic figures, Lieberman stepped forward during the Lewinsky scandal to denounce President Clinton's conduct. But his speech on the Senate floor, much anticipated and gossiped about, turned out to be a dud. Though there was rampant speculation at the time that Lieberman would play the role for the Democrats that Sen. James Buckley, R-N.Y., had played during Watergate -- being the first of his party to ask for the President's resignation -- Lieberman stepped up to bat and ... bunted (George Will does not hold a copyright on baseball analogies). Certainly Lieberman was perfectly cast for the role of brave Democrat. His career has been marked by concern about the nation's moral degeneration. He has joined forces with Bill Bennett and others to bring pressure on Hollywood and the music industry to clean up their acts, and his own rectitude and piety are beyond question. But like another northeast senator who has earned points for brains and seriousness, the retiring Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Lieberman is all talk and no action. That famous speech, which might have changed history if it had ended differently, was like a countdown without a liftoff. He began by explaining to the Senate and the world that after watching President Clinton admit that he had been lying to the nation for seven months, "personal dismay" had given way to a "larger, graver sense of loss for our country," a loss that demanded a reckoning of the damage that the president's conduct has done to the proud legacy of his presidency, and ultimately, an accounting of the impact of his actions on our democracy and its moral foundations." Quite a build-up. He went on to lament the damage the example the president had offered to children admonished to tell the truth, and decried the "very sad and sordid" fact that "I cannot watch the news on television with my 10-year-old daughter anymore." As appealing as the calls to "move on" might be, Lieberman declared, "the transgressions the president has admitted to are too consequential for us to walk away and leave the impression for our children and our posterity that what President Clinton acknowledges he did within the White House is acceptable behavior for our nation's leader." And? And nothing. The final paragraphs of the speech backed away from any firm stance at all. Lieberman neither called for the president's resignation nor even for his censure. And so the man who is meant to exemplify the moral conscience of the Democratic Party is someone who, alas, could live with President Clinton's transgressions, albeit uncomfortably. At the time Lieberman spoke, few Americans favored impeachment. But the times have changed, and most now believe the Republicans did the right thing. For the next several days, debate will swirl about whether Lieberman was too soft on Clinton -- not exactly the home run Gore was hoping for.