Cheney's question for Lieberman

William F. Buckley
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Posted: Oct 05, 2000 12:00 AM
Dick Cheney has a very tough challenge ahead of him in his debate with Joe Lieberman on Thursday. It is, no less: Hasn't Senator Lieberman seriously diminished his moral credibility?

This is the only scheduled debate between the two candidates. The guessing is that the easy manner of Senator Lieberman, what is so widely applauded as his "avuncularity," will show up well up against the relative severity of Dick Cheney, who smiles with difficulty, and is reasonably thought of as the man behind the huge desk at the Pentagon telling the bombers and the marines where to go, or else the big man sitting behind the huge desk in Texas, telling the drillers where to drill. It would be easier for Dick Cheney to handle Joe Lieberman if his manner were more like Lloyd Bentsen's, with his capacity for poisonous affability.

The question of the day isn't just the differences on policy positions. It is expected that when a man accepts the vice-presidential nomination he will harness his political extemporaneities to the end of serving the main candidate. Most people are grown-up about this and do not expect Mr. Lieberman, notwithstanding his traditional enthusiasm for such ideas as school vouchers for deprived children or different means of maximizing Social Security returns, to stress these points or even to mention these anomalies.

But what has happened that is noticeable, and that Mr. Cheney has a duty to inquire into, is the sharp turn of the senator on the matter of marketed Hollywood depravity. This matters because when over the years Senator Lieberman criticized the cultural establishment in Hollywood, he was making profound moral points. And these are not traduced without severe exposure to doubt and even condescension. Mr. Cheney has got to make this point. "Senator (or, 'Joe'), since your nomination, you have flatly contradicted moral positions you've taken on sex and violence and its attempted transfusion into the entertainment fare of young people. In doing so you have damaged democratic ideals."

The candidates have 90 minutes to talk things out, and Mr. Cheney is entitled to spend the time necessary to amplify his charge. William J. Bennett, the co-director of Empower America and an old friend and admirer of Lieberman, put it all together in a searing column for The Wall Street Journal, appropriately titled, "I'm Disappointed, Joe."

The great retreat was on Sept. 18 when Senator Lieberman appeared at a huge ($4.2 million) Hollywood fund-raiser. Everyone there wanted to know how Candidate Lieberman would now handle the Hollywood question. What Hollywood question? Here is the language by Senator Lieberman before he became a vice presidential candidate: Hollywood is "pushing the envelope of civility and morality in a way that drags the rest of the culture down."

How did he handle the question at the Hollywood fund-raiser? "I promise you this: We will never, never put the government in the position of telling you by law, through law, what to make. We will noodge you, but we will never become censors." (The question, of course, is not to tell Hollywood what to do, but what it can't do. Like, e.g., make snuff films.)

Last year Senator Lieberman's words were: "If they continue to market death and degradation to our children and pay no heed to the carnage, then one way or another the government will act." Is government supposed to act by not acting?

Mr. Cheney does not have to instruct the American public on exactly what needs to be done in what situation or how exactly the Federal Trade Commission report on the marketing practices of Hollywood is to be acknowledged/ignored/circumvented. The chilling antinomianism of some of the players at the Hollywood fund-raiser is suggested by the introductory speech of Larry David, the executive producer of "Seinfeld." The gentle speaker said of Governor Bush that he was a "smirking" lightweight who is "making it possible for a lot of idiots like myself to actually consider running for office." He proceeded (as a Jew, and surely to the intense embarrassment of Mr. Lieberman) to deride the Christian faith. ("Like Bush, I too found Christ in my 40s. He came into my room one night, and I said: 'What, no call? You just pop in?'")

The company Mr. Lieberman is keeping, and the abject surrender on the moral questions whose espousal so distinguished him in the past, are a solemn responsibility of Mr. Cheney to examine.