April 26, 2001
Lieberman’s Next Story
I thought I saw Arthur Goldberg the other night at USC. The late Supreme Court justice died in 1990, but his ghost surely hung over the Trojan campus Wednesday during Sen. Joseph Lieberman's speech at the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life. Two great men, two American Jewish leaders. What could they say to each other?
I think it's this: Arthur telling Joe, you did right.
In 1962, Goldberg, whose name was once synonymous with "New Deal Liberal," became the fifth vote of the Warren Court majority; his logic gave us not only the right to counsel on appeal but the right of married couples to contraception, laying the groundwork for Roe vs. Wade.
Think about the connections: Goldberg's father was a fruit-and-vegetable peddler; Lieberman's ran a liquor store. Goldberg, with a lifetime appointment, was the highest-ranking Jewish official in America. Lieberman was a two-term senator from the state that gave us Abe Ribicoff. In 1965, Goldberg was 57, just a year younger than the Connecticut senator when he was named running mate by Al Gore.
He must have thought that time was on his side when Lyndon Johnson prevailed upon Goldberg to resign and become his ambassador to the United Nations, filling the vacancy left by the death of Adlai Stevenson. It's said he thought he could end the Vietnam War. It's said he thought later presidents would reappoint him. How can you turn down the president?
It would be the biggest mistake of his life.
Goldberg took the ambassadorship, but three years later, as Vietnam raged, he resigned. Goldberg ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York in 1968, then returned to private legal practice until his death. His career had luster, but never again shine.
There were many political observers last fall, and for a while I was among them, who forgot the lesson of Arthur Goldberg. They criticized Lieberman for failing to put 2,000 percent of himself into Gore/Lieberman 2000.
They wanted him to fall for flattering opportunity and a crack at destiny. Give up the bird in the hand for the one in the bush.
Lieberman did not. Practical politician, the un-Goldberg learning from history, he ran for both at once, the vice presidency under Al Gore and for his third term as Connecticut senator. This was likened to a man who wears both suspenders and a belt, overly cautious and self-serving. But considering Florida, and recalling Arthur Goldberg, of course, it turned out to be smart.
What would have happened had Lieberman listened to his critics, given the split in Congress? Good thing we'll never know. But right away, we do know some things. For one, USC's Town and Gown would have been empty rather than sold out. For another, W. himself would not be praising his would-be opponent for "putting aside the election" and working instead for education reform. Lieberman startled his audience on Wednesday refusing even a moment's rancor. No more talk about being the party in "exile." He is, for the moment, the darling of the middle, his centrist Democratic Leadership Council position lodged strongly in values-based foreign and domestic policy.
Finally, the Christian Science Monitor would not be running editorials, as they did last week, comparing Lieberman's career with JFK's.
In learning from history, Lieberman becomes, in the words of Marlon Brando in "On The Waterfront," a "real contender."
At the Casden lecture last week, I met two filmmakers who are trying to tell the Lieberman story, however it turns out.
Ron Frank, whose documentaries include "The Eternal Road," the story of Kurt Weill's opera and the fate of German Jewry, and "The Hunt for Adolf Eichmann," followed Lieberman along the campaign trail. He and his producer, Ann Benjamin, have a deal with Connecticut Public Broadcasting for a three-part series on 20th-century American Jewry. Lieberman's story provides the centerpiece. They're seeking completion funds for the project (email@example.com).
Frank tells me, "There's a sense of Jewishness that he brings to the campaign trail, both an ethnicity and an American political sense.
"Win or lose, we still have a story to tell."
True, it's a long time to 2004. But Goldberg would think it will be time well spent.