Just A Jew Named Joe

Article excerpt

Though heir to a long tradition of Jews in politics, Joseph Lieberman was the first Jew to be nominated by a major party for national office in the United States. As Democratic candidate for vice president in 2000, he received more popular votes than his opponent, Dick Cheney. Lieberman's persona as an observant modern Orthodox Jew appealed to many at a time when religion was increasingly prominent in public life. Projecting an aura of wholesomeness, moderation, and congeniality, he was the Jew as mensch, a man who, like Arthur Miller's Biff, succeeds in American society by making himself "well-liked." He was continuously in awe of his own success at fulfilling the American dream of equal opportunity. But by 2004, when politics became more polarized and his bid for the presidency foundered, Lieberman's Jewishness seemed irrelevant and his moderation a liability.

Joseph Isidore Lieberman would later claim that his first action after hanging up the telephone with Vice President Al Gore on the afternoon of August 7, 2000 was to recite she-hekheyanu, the Hebrew blessing for new experiences. Gore had invited Lieberman to be his vice presidential running mate, making Connecticut's junior Senator the first Jew in American history to be nominated by a major party for national elected office. As he kissed the mezzuzah on his way out the door to confront a throng of supporters and reporters, Lieberman was about to become not quite the most famous American Jew (Bob Dylan, Barbara Walters, Jerry Seinfeld, Monica Lewinsky, Arthur Miller, and Barbra Streisand could probably boast higher celebrity quotients), but at least the American most famous for being a Jew. Gore's choice of running mate aroused what campaign manager Bill Daley called "Liebermania."1 "Chutzpah!"proclaimed the cover of Time,2 beneath photos of both Gore and Lieberman, though it was not clear whether the magazine was singling out Gore's gumption for selecting a non-Christian candidate or the 58-year-old Jew's presumption that he could aspire to the second highest office in the land. Yet the appearance of a Yiddishism on the cover of the country's most influential newsmagazine signaled that the idea of a Jew seeking higher office in the United States was no longer beyond the pale.

The most remarkable-and remarked about-feature of Lieberman's candidacy for vice president was his overt Jewishness. "Oy, Vey!" shrieked the headline of the September 8 edition of the New York Post, a conservative tabloid. The headline in the Washington Post was: "Gore Picks Lieberman: Running Mate to be First Jew on Major Ticket." The Boston Globe announced: "Gore Picks Lieberman, a Jew, as Running Mate," and the New York Times declared: "Lieberman Will Run with Gore; First Jew on a Major U.S. Ticket." The Chicago Sun-Times broke the news with: "Gore Selects Orthodox Jew as Running Mate." On The Late Show, David Letterman also called attention to the candidates ethnicity: "Joe Lieberman would be the first Jew to serve directly under a president since-well, since Monica."3 The fact that Lieberman's religion quickly became a commonplace of comic banter was evidence of how extraordinary it was to see a Jew on a national ticket. But in a culture hypersensitive to ethnic slights and slurs (in 1984 Jesse Jackson had sabotaged his own campaign for president when a casual reference to New York as "Hymietown" made him appear antisemitic), the fact that jokes about Lieberman's Jewishness were now admissible suggested widespread acceptance of that Jewishness. Lieberman himself contributed to the Jewish joshing, proposing on Conan O'Brien's late-night TV show this slogan for the new campaign: "Gore-Lieberman: no bull, no pork."4

"A Jewish vice president?" asked comedy writer Larry Gelbart. "Joe Lieberman would be just a heartburn away from the presidency."5 Gore assured his campaign partner: "A lot of people told me that your religion would be a problem, but I concluded that their fear of anti-Semitism exceeded anti-Semitism itself. …