I am going to Mississippi because there is much work to be done there and few men are doing it," wrote 21-year-old Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Yale Daily News, in his column on Oct. 28, 1963. Lieberman was headed south to help register black voters for a mock election, a prelude to the 1964 Mississippi Summer campaign. It wasn't the only cause he championed from his perch at the paper, and his positions weren't always predictable. That same fall he defended--unsuccessfully--Gov. George Wallace's right to speak to a campus group. But racial injustice in Mississippi struck the deepest chord. "It all becomes a personal matter to me," he wrote. "I am challenged personally." Friends from the Yale days say the Lieberman that Al Gore selected as his running mate last week is the one they knew: pious, earnest, driven but never doctrinaire. One classmate, attorney Angus Macbeth, remembers a favorite phrase Lieberman used to describe his objective in life: "to roll the great ball of truth and goodness forward an inch or two."
In 1992 Bill Clinton needed a running mate with stature to boost his struggling presidential candidacy and found Gore. Now, diminished by eight years in Clinton's shadow, Gore is hoping that Lieberman can do the same for him. Of the finalists in the vice presidential sweepstakes, he is probably closest to being Gore's political soulmate. He is a moderate man with a generally liberal record, yet willing to break with Democratic orthodoxy on issues like defense spending and media violence. And despite the virtuous manner, he is also a canny and tough-minded competitor with a history of knocking off heavily favored incumbents.
Lieberman understands the politics of faith. After winning statewide office in Connecticut four times since 1982, he told NEWSWEEK in an interview, he is confident that his religion will not be held against him. "It's not just a matter of theory; it grows out of my entire life," he said. "I've found people not only extremely tolerant and fair--judging me on my personal qualifications--but also extremely respectful. I've found that my religious observance has created a bond with people." Still, there remains The Question: are voters ready to accept a Jew--a Sabbath-observant Jew who retreats from the world every Friday at sundown for 24 hours--one step from the presidency? (Lieberman says he would break the Sabbath, as he has in the Senate, to conduct important business.) While the polls say yes, some strategists worry that anti-Semitism running under the radar of the surveys will cost Gore votes. "I've got six words for you," said one Democrat: "Tom Bradley, Harvey Gantt, David Dinkins," referring to black candidates misled by their polls.
Lieberman's early life was steeped in spirituality. Henry Lieberman, a Stamford, Conn., liquor-store owner, and his wife, Marcia, raised their son as an Orthodox Jew. But Lieberman says it was his grandmother Minnie, a deeply religious Central European emigrant--Baba, he called her in Yiddish--who was, as he said in his recent memoir, "my window to the Old World and my path to appreciating the New World." He entered Yale in 1960 and, as a sophomore, joined the Daily News, the heart of political life on campus. Friends said there was never any doubt that he was headed for a political career. "Joe was fully formed," said New York investment banker Alan McFarland, an undergraduate and law-school classmate at Yale. "It was just a question of his playing out his hand."
In New Haven Lieberman met the two mentors who embody the yin and yang of his politics. Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, who hired him as a summer intern in 1963, was a statesmanlike legislator whose bipartisan civility left a lasting impact on Lieberman. But the young man was also enamored of John Bailey, a classic, cigar-chomping backroom boss who ran the state Democratic Party with an iron fist. Lieberman found Bailey's rough-and-tumble, machine style of politics just as effective in its own way, and he made the boss the subject of his senior thesis. …