WASHINGTON — Talking to reporters in his driveway on a hot day in August 2000, Connecticut’s U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman beamed — he had just been chosen as the Democratic vice presidential candidate to Al Gore. “Miracles happen,” the proud son of a Stamford liquor store owner told the nation.
Eight years later, Lieberman would complete a dramatic makeover when he nearly took the same role on the Republican ticket beside his friend John McCain. It was a very public 180-degree change of heart — unseen in recent American politics. To the astonishment of Democrats, he was a showcased speaker at the 2008 Republican National Convention.
Despite a 40-year career of remarkable achievements, the transformation that marked the eight years between those elections will define much of Lieberman’s legacy. He leaves office this week, a proud independent senator who began public life as a 1960s antiwar activist and took a hard right turn after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“After 9/11, Joe changed,” Lieberman’s close friend, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, said during a recent interview with The Hartford Courant in his Senate office.
“Joe understood that the threats we faced were different. We had to get ahead of this. We let our guard down before 9/11. We can never do that again,’’ Graham said. “He was sort of a Winston Churchill figure who understood that after 9/11 there was no appeasing these guys. You had to fight them. It’s not just about killing terrorists. It’s about a robust foreign policy, staying ahead of the threat. He has a view of radical Islam very consistent with Winston Churchill’s view of Hitler. You’re never going to be able to deal with this guy. You’ve got to fight him.’’
The liberal Democrat became a strong supporter of homeland security and the Iraq War under President George W. Bush, a transformation forever sealed when Bush embraced Lieberman on national TV after his State of the Union Address in 2005.
“In the long term, probably the biggest contribution I’ve been able to make to the country and my state,’’ Lieberman said, was “all of the post 9-11 reform and reorganization of our government to deal with this unconventional challenge to our security, represented by Islamist terrorism — the Department of Homeland Security, which I co-sponsored; the 9-11 Commission, which McCain and I introduced and created; and then all of the 9-11 legislation which reformed and reorganized the intelligence community in the most significant reform since the beginning of the Cold War in the late 1940s, that created the director of national intelligence and national counter-terrorism.’’
Lieberman, 70, explains his unusual career path by saying that “the unimaginable happened in 2000” to launch an unpredictable series of events.
“Trust me, it was beyond unimaginable that I would be considered as a Republican vice presidential candidate and perhaps have the opportunity to take a unique place in history to have run for vice president on two different party tickets — and to have lost twice,’’ Lieberman said. “God saved me from that — or the Republican delegates saved me from that.’’Lieberman’s evolution over the years brought him a series of new friends and supporters, including McCain, Bush, and FOX News commentator Sean Hannity. It also brought him a small army of political enemies who coalesced around a previously unknown anti-war candidate named Ned Lamont to defeat Lieberman in the 2006 U.S. Senate primary.
But Lieberman says he was vindicated with his greatest political victory in November 2006 that was made possible by a coalition largely of Republicans and independents. That proved to be his final campaign in a career that is now closing after 40 years in public service, including 24 years in the U.S. Senate.
In Connecticut, many liberal Democrats increasingly soured on Lieberman’s hawkish stances on defense and his support of Republican views. He was at his peak when he made history as the first Jewish American on a major party ticket, but his later views on the Iraq War prompted many Democrats to deride him as a controversial and divisive figure.
Lieberman supporters believe that it was the Democratic Party — more so than Lieberman — that changed through the years as evidenced by the party’s blistering opposition to the Iraq War. Lieberman himself attributed it to “a very unusual series of events in which I had different opportunities’’ involving “different times and different people and different relationships that I had,’’ including his close friendship with McCain.
The two senators are like brothers in a bond forged by more than 50 foreign trips together to hot spots like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. A McCain victory in 2008 also would have changed Lieberman’s life once again in the same way as the decision by Gore.
“I guarantee you if I was elected president, he would have been Secretary of State,’’ McCain said in a recent interview in his spacious Washington office. “I’ll bet you if a president nominated him to be the Secretary of State, the vote would be 100 to 0.’’
At the other end of the spectrum, hard-core liberals and some true-blue Democrats regret voting for Lieberman in his earlier days and say they would never do so again.
Consumer activist Ralph Nader says that Lieberman turned into “a right-wing extremist on everything except the environment and gay rights’’ in the Senate.
“He started out as a promising environmentalist when he was a junior senator, and he turned into one of the leading warmongers for the American empire and an uncritical advocate for the military industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about,’’ Nader told The Courant in an interview. “He never met a weapon system that he didn’t like. … Look how Lieberman betrayed his own party. I’m not a fan of the Democratic Party. This is a guy who stood at the Republican National Convention, next to McCain. He supports the opponent. He describes Obama as immature, inexperienced. He comes back to the Senate, and they give him his chairmanship back!’’
Despite the public clashes with friends, Lieberman has always rebounded. Even though Lieberman supported McCain over Obama in 2008, it was Obama who stepped in and said that Lieberman should remain as the chairman of the Senate homeland security committee at a time when some Democrats were still angry. Although Lieberman was the first Senate Democrat to publicly scold then-President Bill Clinton in a memorable speech on the Senate floor during the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998, it was Clinton who traveled to Waterbury eight years later to rally support for Lieberman when he was on the ropes in the bitter primary. Clinton told the crowd that day that Lieberman was his longtime friend, and “I love him.’’
Lieberman first met Clinton back in 1970 when he was running in a primary for the state Senate in New Haven. The two remained friends through the decades as one became a U.S. Senator and the other became president. But by 1998, Clinton was in the middle of the Lewinsky scandal, and Lieberman felt compelled to say something on the Senate floor.
That summer, the Lieberman family had rented a vacation home on the shoreline in Madison, where Lieberman’s four children, wife, and mother had gathered for rest and relaxation. They hashed out the Lewinsky situation around the table, and the children strongly believed that Lieberman should say something about the matter. But the two closest women in Lieberman’s life had reservations.
“The one who was really against me speaking out was my mother, of blessed memory,’’ Lieberman recalled at his office. “She loved Clinton. She said, ‘Oh, you know, people make mistakes. He’s your friend.’ The night before, when I finished writing my statement, we were at our dinner table here in Washington, and Hadassah said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Really?’ For some dumb reason I said, ‘I feel like I’m John Glenn and they’ve strapped me into the space capsule, and I’m taking off. It’s too late to turn back.’ ‘’
Lieberman pushed forward, and he headed to the Senate floor in September 1998 for a watershed, 25-minute speech that made front-page headlines — calling Clinton’s conduct “immoral’’ and “disgraceful.’’ The speech had broken the dam, and previously silent Democrats started speaking out. U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and others stood up on the Senate floor to say they agreed with Lieberman.
While Lieberman’s speech was unusual, so was Clinton’s reaction to it. Clinton called his longtime friend on the Sunday morning after the Lewinsky speech.
“He said he didn’t really disagree with anything I had said in the speech. It was fascinating. … We’ve stayed close since.’’
“I’ve been very lucky that people like Clinton and Obama have been forgiving when I wasn’t with them,’’ Lieberman said during a recent conversation in his Washington office. “I think they both understood the context of why I did what I did. We were building on relationships that existed before.’’
In a familiar pattern, Lieberman rebounded in 2009 when some fiery Democrats wanted to strip him of his chairmanship of the homeland security committee after he supported McCain during the 2008 race. In a secret ballot, Lieberman’s fellow Democrats in the Senate voted 42-13 to allow him to keep his chairmanship.
Throughout his career, Lieberman’s enduring strength has been the ability to find powerful allies at the right time.
“He’s never had a political up or down with me. To me, he’s been a very steady guy,’’ said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “I fought for him to keep him in the Democratic caucus. It was one of the best choices I’ve ever made.’’
Another factor is the deeply personal relationships that are forged in the U.S. Senate that hold allies together amid difficult political battles. Lieberman’s longtime friend, former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, said the public is often oblivious to the close connections that can create compromises in the hot cauldron of Washington, D.C.
“To some people, it sounds simplistic. But it’s not,’’ Dodd said, naming some of the top Senate leaders over the past 50 years. “It’s why Lyndon Johnson was effective. Bob Dole was good at it. Howard Baker. Bob Byrd.’’
“In many ways, it always comes down to personal relationships,’’ Dodd said.
Amid the bitter public rhetoric in Washington, Lieberman became a master at the behind-the-scenes relationships and compromises that were key to his success, but were not often seen by the general public.
On some of the biggest issues in recent years, Lieberman delivered for Reid and the Democrats. Lieberman is widely viewed as the 60th vote for Obama’s healthcare plan that was roundly derided by Republicans. He was also arguably the 60th vote in 2009 for Obama’s stimulus plan. In addition, Lieberman was a key sponsor of repealing the military policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell regarding gay and lesbian service members.
With so few swing voters in the Senate, Lieberman’s power increased through the years as liberals and conservatives fell into familiar places and the key votes in the middle were decided by centrists. One of those came on Iraq, where Lieberman supported the surge that was proposed by President Bush.
“We were one vote away from a timetable to withdraw from Iraq, which would have been a disaster, and Joe was the only Democrat who voted with us to keep them from getting 60 votes,’’ said Graham, the South Carolina Republican. “That was … a profile in political courage that you won’t see happen any time soon. A guy risked being run out of his party because he was so worried about losing in Iraq, and that’s why I admire Joe so much.’’
Despite the criticism, Lieberman, has remained a reliable Democratic voter. He lines up with Democrats about 90 percent of the time. During the 2006 primary battle Lieberman was called one the Senate’s most liberal members.
While casting thousands of votes over the past 24 years, Lieberman made many friends. This includes former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who describes Lieberman as “one of the greatest senators we’ve ever had in the Senate.’’
When Lieberman was fighting for his political life in October 2006, Koch stepped forward and campaigned for him, shoulder to shoulder, at Grand Central Station in New York City as Connecticut commuters were heading for their trains. Koch criticized two prominent Democratic senators from his home state — Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer — for turning their backs on Lieberman in the general election because he had lost the primary.
“He has always been known as the conscience of the Senate,’’ Koch, now 88, said. “I think the Senate will be much the poorer for his loss.’’
A die-hard Democrat, Koch said Lieberman should have supported Obama over McCain in 2008.
“Joe was wrong,’’ Koch said of the 2008 race. “And I don’t expect everybody to be right all the time. You look at their whole record.’’
Job Inquiries From Bush
Despite his voting record with Democrats on core domestic issues like gun control, abortion rights, tax increases, the environment, and gay rights, Lieberman also took a series of high-profile positions on national security that won favor with Republicans.
His transformation allowed the former Democratic vice presidential nominee to field secret inquiries for jobs with the Bush administration, Lieberman said. Not long after Bush won his second term over Lieberman’s Yale classmate, John Kerry, Lieberman came close to joining Bush’s administration.
“Should I say this?’’ Lieberman responded aloud during an interview, looking over at an aide. “I don’t know if I’ve said it before. I should have saved this for my book.’’
“Twice I was asked if I would consider — I was not offered, and that’s very important to say — at the end of the first Bush administration, after he had been re-elected [in 2004],’’ Lieberman said, “I was asked whether I would consider accepting the position of ambassador to the United Nations.’’
Lieberman spoke with various top Bush advisers, including chief of staff Andrew Card and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, about the position before he finally decided to remain in the Senate.
Not long after, Lieberman said Card called again, asking him about being homeland security chief on short notice. Would he consider replacing Bernie Kerik of New York, who had run into major controversy in December 2004 after being nominated as homeland security chief?
“If you’re asked by a president, when the focus of my life has been public service,’’ Lieberman said, “you really have to give it the most serious consideration — and I did give the U.N. ambassadorship serious consideration … but ultimately I decided I wanted to continue working in the Senate.’’
Lieberman had the chance to caucus with the Senate Republicans after some Democrats wanted to throw him out of the party after supporting the Iraq War and then endorsing McCain in 2008.
“Mitch McConnell called me twice about that — once right after 2006 when I was elected as an independent and then after 2008,’’ Lieberman said. “In 2007, Harry Reid and the leadership recruited me to come back and that’s where I was most comfortable. Harry called me in on the same morning that Mitch McConnell had called me.’’
Writing A New Chapter For The Future
After spending much of his time in Washington, D.C. for nearly 25 years, Lieberman plans to move back to Connecticut to be closer to his children and grandchildren. His future path seems to lead away from the world where he has spent the last quarter century making an indelible mark. That could include stints teaching law and national security at a law school in New York, completing projects for think tanks on homeland security and foreign policy, and working part time at a major law firm.
Fittingly, his name still surfaces as a candidate for a job in the Obama administration, perhaps in the Pentagon or State Department or elsewhere.
“I’m not expecting to be asked to do anything in the executive branch of government,’’ Lieberman said, adding that he still would seriously consider any potential offers from the president.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a friend who has watched Lieberman closely for 40 years, says his colleague seems ready for whatever comes next.
“He seems very much at peace at this point with his career and his life,’’ Blumenthal said. “As far as I can tell, there’s no sense of regret about retiring from the Senate. No looking back and saying, ‘Well, I wish I had done that differently.’ It’s very much the sense that ‘I did it my way.’ ‘’
Lieberman often thinks back on those heady days when he sat perched near the top of American politics, a national political celebrity who sang “My Way” on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien’’ in 2000.
“I was living in a different orbit of existence,’’ Lieberman recalled, adding as an aside that it was the type of situation where he had dinner one night at the famed Manhattan nightspot, Elaine’s, with actor Harrison Ford. “It was La La Land.’’
It is a long way from speaking to reporters on live television in the driveway on Alston Avenue in New Haven 12 years ago after the call from Al Gore. Lieberman said that day that miracles do indeed happen — and he says now that his journey from Yale to the state Senate to Connecticut attorney general to the U.S. Senate to Gore and McCain could never have been imagined. While his future, like his past, is not clearly plotted, Lieberman is once again looking ahead.
“Life does come in chapters, and the chapters can be very different,’’ Lieberman said. “I’ve got the opportunity, thank God, to start a new chapter.’’