July 24, 2003
Why Not Joe?
To find out why many Jews have a problem with the presidential candidacy of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), I spoke to Joe Lieberman.
We met in a Century City office. Friends-of-Joe had pressed him to hold a private interview with The Jewish Journal to address head-on the qualms various Jewish voting blocs have about America's first serious Jewish candidate for president.
How bad are those qualms?
"It's so damn frustrating," one major Lieberman donor in Los Angeles told me as I waited in the lobby for my 15 minutes of face time. "The only people who have a problem with Joe being a Jew are other Jews."
Actually, there are three Jewish groups that have a Lieberman problem.
The Jewish left resents his public attacks on Hollywood entertainment products, his support for the war in Iraq and his vanguard criticism of President Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky affair. Music mogul and liberal activist Danny Goldberg has called Lieberman "poison for the party."
The Jewish right opposes him because, although Lieberman is a traditional Jew, strong on defense and fiscally conservative, he'd be running against President George W. Bush.
But beyond the left and right, Lieberman faces a kind of amorphous antipathy from the Jewish middle, which is discomfited by the very idea of his candidacy.
"With all the anti-Semitism around, it's just not a good time for a Jew to be running," a Westside Democrat whose own politics couldn't be closer to Lieberman's told me. "The only things Jews should be running for are the exits."
In person, Lieberman doesn't seem so worried, nor does he look it. On television, his furrowed brow and slightly nasal voice give him a judgmental aura, like he's just about to tell you to go put on a warmer sweater. Up close, he is funny, direct, even loose. He asked an aide to bring him a Power Bar (it never materialized) and to put a call in to his wife, Hadassah. He wanted her to know he'd call her from the car on the way to the airport.
So, senator, why do so many Jews have a problem with you?
"That's a situation where you can see the glass as half empty or half full," he said, "and, given my nature, I see it as half full."
Lieberman said he is heartened by the amount of Jewish support he's received, and he hopes those who are resistant will come around.
"I understand there's a certain amount of anxiety that comes from Jewish history," he said. "But what I want to tell people who are worried is to have faith in America. I'm not running to be the Jewish president, I want to be the president who happens to be Jewish."
The proof, he said, is in the past. When the senator was Al Gore's running mate in the 2000 election, Lieberman said the response to his Jewishness from non-Jews was almost 100 percent positive.
"Just after I announced, there was a little flurry of anti-Semitic comments, mostly over the Internet, but that was it," he said.
Instead of him or his faith being a hindrance, Lieberman credits his nomination with helping Gore take a leap up in the polls and with enabling the party to garner more votes in a national election than any other ticket since Reagan/Bush.
"Let me put it this way," he said. "I expect to win, but if I don't, I am absolutely certain it will have nothing to do with my religion."
Lieberman said some of his greatest support has come from blacks and Latinos who see a Jewish candidate as opening the way for all minorities to run for the White House.
As for the Jewish left, Lieberman stood by his criticisms of entertainment industry products, but said he would never support censorship.
"I was exercising my First Amendment right to ask people in the entertainment industry to exercise judgment on the products that get to their children." The video game industry has been receptive, he said, the recording industry less so.
I asked Lieberman how he reconciles his traditional Jewish practice with liberal stands on social issues, given the fact that many Orthodox Jews have migrated to the Republican Party.
"Look," he said, "some folks are plain more conservative than I am. I'm a strong supporter of Israel, and I take a series of positions on social issues -- choice, childcare, education -- that I believe are much more consistent with Jewish values."
"We're not going to get every vote," he continued. "If you don't agree with me, don't vote for me. But not voting for me because I'm Jewish would be anti-Semitic."
Lieberman then smiled.
"We have to remember," he said, with a big grin on his face, "the Jewish community is 2 percent of the population. There's another 98 percent we're doing very well with."
He was joking of course -- Lieberman's Jewish support here is strong, but there is that abiding resistance. He wanted to take one last whack at it as his aides pulled him away for a trip to the airport -- and a call to Hadassah.
"People need to hear that they should not be afraid," he said. "I just want people to know what I stand for. I'm not new to this, I've got a record that is 30 years old. I'm pro-job growth and pro-balanced budget, and Bush is fiscally irresponsible. That's what this election is about."
The senator's parting shot might have been his finest: if he launches a strong, clear and bold attack against the president, Jewish Democrats might just flock to him after all -- even though he's Jewish.