An Interview with Joseph Lieberman

Joe Lieberman is the senior Senator from Connecticut and was the vice presidential candidate for the Democratic Party in the 2000 election. As Senator, Lieberman introduced the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010 and played an important role in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. After serving in office since 1989, Lieberman will not seek re-election in 2012.

The Politic: What is your proudest accomplishment in all your years in elected office?

That covers a lot of ground.  I would say that today — and unfortunately, it’s not as common as it used to be — I am proud of the fact I always worked across party lines to get things done.  I’ve been a Democrat and I was elected last time as an Independent, but I have always felt that my higher responsibility was not to a party, but to the national interest and interests of my state.  I have had a lot of interests — wide-ranging interests.  I have been very interested in the environmental movement; I’ve been very interested in civil and human rights; and more recently, I’ve gotten involved in protecting people from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

But probably the area I have been most active in the last 24 years is national security, homeland security, and foreign policy. …

I have had the privilege of being centrally involved in a lot of the response to the attacks of 9/11. … I co-sponsored the legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security, the 9/11 Commission, and a whole new counterterrorism organization.  Overall, I’ve been involved in the most significant reforms in our national security organizations since the beginning of the Cold War and the late 1940s.  That’s what I believe has had the most significant effect on our country, which is to say it’s made us safer since 9/11.

The Politic: Over the years, what is your biggest regret?

I regret that for all my efforts — and they went on for more than a decade — to do something about climate change, I wasn’t able to get to the 60 votes that you need in the Senate to get something done.  I worked with a series of Republican partners.  Anytime you really want to get something done in this place, you better have a co-sponsor from the other party.  I began with Senator Chafee, Senator Warner, Senator McCain, Senator Graham, and Senator Kerry.  The threat of climate change gets worse, but we haven’t been able to put everything together.  I really regret that.  That’s my biggest disappointment.

The Politic: A few years ago, I read a great article by George Packer in The New Yorker called “The Empty Chamber.”  It was about the Senate’s arcane rules and filibusters.  I’d like to ask you the same question Packer posed: how broken is the Senate?

The system has broken down.  Some of this is because of the rules, like the misuse of the filibuster.  Some of it is simply because there is too much partisanship here and ideological rigidity.        Congress was itself created by a compromise.  And here you have to use common sense to negotiate agreements that allow us to make life better and safer in this country.  To do that, you can rarely get 100 percent of what you want.  Too many times, members of Congress today say, “I will not support this bill unless I get everything I want or I get this one point.”  When you try to get 100 percent of what you want around here, you usually end up with zero percent, and the great losers in that are the people who are good enough to send us here to serve them.  The place has broken down.

The Politic: How then would you suggest going about fixing the Senate?  Reform the filibuster?

None of this is easy.  The filibuster was originally conceived to stop the passions of a moment from sweeping through Congress into an unfortunate law.  The Senate requires 60 votes, as opposed to 51, the majority rule, and would be able to slow things down. … I would go back to majority rule.  But if I felt this could be solved by procedural reforms alone, I would be a very happy person — but not very realistic.  Ultimately, it requires elected officials to have the guts to do what their constituents want them to do, which is to work across party lines and reach reasonable compromises that actually get things done for the people and country.

The Politic: Another article I recently read was a New York Times Magazine piece on Al Gore, his family and the heartbreak of losing the 2000 election.  I was wondering about you.  How bad was it to win that election, and then lose it?  Was there a long recovery?

Everybody reacts differently.  We came to the extraordinary events of Election Day and the next month-plus from different places.  Al Gore had been vice president for eight years; naturally, he would think about running for president.  But in the strange, unfair way that it all ended, his career in public service was also over at that point. … For me, I was lifted up by Vice President Gore when he chose me to be his running mate.  This was really something I never dreamed of.  I was also fortunate that I was still a Senator.  Was it a trauma?  Of course it was.  But I was very lucky: the morning after we conceded, I came right to this office, right back to work.  I have had the opportunity to continue my service now for twelve more years.  I have been very fortunate.  But it was tough, but to me, I look back at it and see it as a great privilege.

The Politic: How expected was it – that phone call offering you a spot on the ticket?

When I got the phone call, it was down to three.  The three, interestingly, were John Kerry, John Edwards and me.  And you can look back at what has happened to both of them since then.  If you had asked me at the beginning of 2000, “Do you think you might end up as Al Gore’s running mate?”  I would have said, “Are you kidding me?”  But it was quite thrilling.  The American people were great to me.  I was the first Jewish-American on a national ticket and there was no bigotry at all.  Leaving aside the unfortunate problem of the electoral college and Florida, the fact is, the ticket on which I was privileged to run for vice president got a half million more votes than the other ticket.  The American people were voting — just as I hoped — not for me or against me because of my religion, but based on which two people would do the best job for the country.  That’s my take-away.  Of course I wish I’d had the opportunity to be vice president.  But it wasn’t to be.  The campaign, the opportunity to break a barrier, the total acceptance of me as the first Jewish-American on the ticket, as reflected in the results, was really gratifying.

The Politic: Now to enter a bit of a speed round: some fun questions.  What’s your favorite television show?  My sister wants to know. Is it Glee?

(Laughter)  We tend to be news and sports junkies, and we watch movies on-demand.  But if you forced me [to answer], I’d probably say SportsCenter on ESPN.

The Politic: This is a multiple choice one.  If you could live in any other country, which of the following would it be: England, France, Israel, or drum roll, Sweden?

(Laughter) I can’t imagine living in another country.  I feel very lucky to be an American citizen.

The Politic: I hear Sweden is lovely this time of year.

They are all great places to visit.

The Politic: Which of the two do you prefer: Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert?

I haven’t watched a lot lately.  I guess I’d give a slight nod to Stewart.  I’ve met him over the years.  I don’t know Colbert.

The Politic: Who would you say is your best friend in the Senate?  Or top three, if you don’t want to insult anybody?

(Laughter)  Good, because you’re going to get me in trouble.  It’s weird, because I am about to say three Republicans, strangely enough.  They would be Susan Collins, John McCain and Lindsay Graham.

The Politic: This is another fun question.  Which dead politician would you most love to have dinner with?

Teddy Roosevelt has always fascinated me.  JFK was my hero and [Harry] Truman was a very impressive leader.  I have gotten to know a lot of the leaders since then; I know [Bill] Clinton well, and the two Bushes.  But a dead one?  I’d say, first choice: Teddy Roosevelt.

The Politic: Can I ask you whom you will be voting for this November?

You can, but I will not answer.  I am still undecided, even for the next Senator from Connecticut.  I feel such a sense of liberation not running this year.

The Politic: Do you not like campaigning?

I’ve loved it over the course of my life, but I realize I’ve done it enough.  Part of it is because of the enormous amount of time you spend running around the country raising money.  Senate campaigns, as you can see, have become quite nasty and personal. … I am just going to vote, like a good Independent, watching it right until the end.  I’ll make up my mind on the presidency and the Connecticut Senate race in the privacy of the voting booth.

The Politic: You mentioned fundraising.  How has Washington, D.C. cultures changed with regard to money and how much of your day you spend raising money?

It takes a lot of time, particularly during the two years you are in-cycle — that’s the vocabulary of the Senate — which is the two years leading up to your election.  It has always been important to be able to raise money.  One of the reasons I was able to win in 1988, when I first ran, was that as a challenger, I raised an amount of money that was comparable to what Senator [Lowell] Weicker raised, which was unexpected.  It was very hard, because the limits then were smaller.  When you are running for re-election, the conventional wisdom around here — and I think this is wise — is that the more money you have in the bank when you come into your election cycle, the less likely it is that you’ll get a really strong opponent.

Now it takes more than that.  If you have a lot of money in the bank, but your popularity is way down, you’re going to have tough opponents.  But if you have a lot of money in the bank and your popularity at home is up, then some of the stronger [potential] challengers won’t run.  I was fortunate enough to have that experience in 1994 and 2000.  Obviously that was not the case in 2006.  In that last campaign, [my opponent in the Democratic primary] Ned Lamont put in $18 or $20 million of his own money, forcing me to raise over $20 million.  I couldn’t do that in Connecticut.  So I had to spend a lot of weekends and recesses travelling around the country doing fundraisers away from my family and my constituents.

There is a building over on Madison Avenue where we rent offices because you can’t make fundraising calls from your public office.  This building is popular because it’s a short walk from here.  During the cycle and a little before, you go over there quite regularly — an hour a day — and you just get on the phone and make calls.  It took me a while [to get used to it] because it is not natural to call and ask somebody to give you money.  But you realize that if you don’t do it, you’ve got no chance of being a Senator.  So you have to do it.  For better or worse, I got very good at it and thank God a lot of people supported me.  I raised over $20 million last time to compete with Ned Lamont.

They were telling me, when I was thinking about running this year, that I would have to raise over $30 million this time because Linda McMahon was going to run again and she was going to spend a lot of money.  And I just thought, “Oh man, being away from my wife, my children, my grandchildren, my job — it takes away from your ability.”  Actually, this has been a wonderful term because I’ve focused on being the best Senator I can be.

The Politic: What is your fondest memory from Yale?  And what advice do you have for college students today?

When I went to Yale, I didn’t really have any particular interest.  My goals were informed [in part] by [John F.] Kennedy’s election in 1960, when I began to form an interest in seeking public office.  I was also affected by Sen. [Abraham] Ribicoff, who I interned with during college.  But if you had stopped me when I was coming out of Yale Law School and said, “What’s your dream, Lieberman?  What do you want to do with your life?”  Well, the true answer, which I never would have said because it was too presumptuous, was, “I’d love to be a Senator.  That’s my dream.”

And so I’ve been able to live the dream.  And so I would say, in spite of all the ups and downs that come with it, I’ve been very lucky. Public service is just a wonderful way to spend your life. The first one when I ran for office — fresh out of Yale — I challenged an incumbent state senator when I was 27 years old.  Most people thought I was crazy, and I probably was.  Then when I ran against Sen. Weicker; nobody thought I had a chance, but I thought I did, and I thought I had a case to make.  So take risks.  But another thing to say to students is that there are other ways to be involved in public service that are immensely satisfying: to be part of what we call the “civil service.”  Teaching, law enforcement, environmental protection, healthcare administration, homeland security, military — you could go on and on.  These are extraordinary careers.  You may not get rich in the monetary sense, but I think you’ll feel everyday that you’re doing something worthwhile.  And that’s important.

And what’s my favorite memory from Yale?  Yale really transformed my life, so all my memories are happy.  I just love the place.  What do I mean that it transformed my life?  I came as a kid from a Stamford public school with a great, sort of “Happy Days,” upbringing.  And Yale educated me, broadened my horizons.  There were two wonderful presidents of Yale then, Whitney Griswold and Kingman Brewster.  Griswold died my junior year; I got to know him but not really well.  But I was very close to Brewster.  They both were great advocates of this sense that we were chosen by being admitted to Yale, but that this came with responsibility.  We had a responsibility to be leaders, to serve, to make a difference in whatever we did.  And that was a message that I absorbed.  “For God, for country, and for Yale.”  I always have to say that that’s in descending order of importance.

I think it was William F. Buckley who said that line is the greatest anti-climax in the English language.

In the final column Buckley wrote about me — God bless him — when I was running in 2006 in the general election… he talked about the good parts, a few things he didn’t like, and then he said, “But in the end, what I can say for certainty about Senator Lieberman is that he has a genuine love for God and country.”  But he left out Yale!

Josef Goodman is a junior in Morse College.


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