by Jules Witcover

After 24 years in the U.S. Senate, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the first and only Jewish politician nominated to a national major party ticket, in 2000, had some advice to his colleagues in a farewell speech on the Senate floor.

To break the impasse that has paralyzed the body in recent years, Lieberman preached: "It requires reaching across the aisle and finding partners from the opposite party. That is what is desperately needed in Washington now."

In the last years of his long Senate tenure, it certainly could be said that Joe Lieberman practiced what he preached. So much so, in fact, that he quit his lifelong membership in the Democratic Party and went halfway across the party divide in 2006, changing his affiliation to Independent, though for a less than selfless reason.

He did so after losing the Democratic nomination for his seat to a more liberal challenger named Ned Lamont, but he managed to survive in a three-way general election. Thereupon he agreed to vote with the Democrats to organize the Senate and maintain their majority for a time, and was allowed to keep a committee chairmanship.

While continuing to vote with the Democrats on most issues, Lieberman demonstrated his own brand of bipartisanship in 2008 by supporting the Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, a fellow supporter of former President George W. Bush's war of choice in Iraq, against Democratic nominee Barack Obama.

To emphasize his commitment to bipartisanship, Lieberman took the unusual step of addressing the Republican National Convention on behalf of McCain, who coincidentally was said to have considered taking him as his running mate, before turning to the little-known governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin.

As a Democrat, Lieberman was a leading figure in the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the centrist independent body of the party of FDR, JFK and LBJ, which had steered a middle course during and after the conservative Republican revival of the 1980s.

In 2000, Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore raised Lieberman's political visibility by choosing him as his running mate. If one of the purposes was to boost the Democratic Jewish vote, however, the gesture failed in critical Florida, which famously or infamously went for the Bush-Cheney ticket and eventually decided the election.

Democrats could only sadly speculate what the outcome might have been had Gore instead chosen Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, also a former governor and one of the state's strongest vote-getters of the time, as his vice-presidential nominee.

In an interview with The New York Times last month, Lieberman said he felt "a really tremendous sense of gratitude to Al Gore" for having picked him" as well as "disappointment, anger and frustration" over how the election ended (by U.S. Supreme Court edict).

But at a 2001 DLC meeting in New York, Lieberman blamed Gore for having campaigned on a liberal, populist slogan of "They're for the powerful, we're for the people," which smacked of earlier New Deal days.

In 2004, Lieberman mistakenly judged that his presence on the 2000 national ticket gave him shot at the Democratic presidential nomination. But his candidacy never got off the ground in New Hampshire, and he bowed out. His Senate primary defeat two years later set him on his independent course, which further alienated many of his old Democratic colleagues.

In that same New York Times retrospective interview last month, Lieberman was asked if he "could take a cross-country trip with any three of your Senate colleagues, who would they be?" He named three Republicans: McCain and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both allies in support of the Iraq war, and Susan Collins of Maine.

So his departure from the Senate will be met with mixed feelings at best. Joe Lieberman always seemed to have a higher opinion of himself then did many with whom he served, in what apparently was itself a bipartisan judgment of the sort he advocated for nearly a quarter of a century on Capitol Hill.


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Goodbye, Senator Joe Lieberman | Politics

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