Liebermama: The Return of Joe Lieberman Means the Return of His Mother. (Dispatches)

By Franke-Ruta, Garance | The American Prospect, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Liebermama: The Return of Joe Lieberman Means the Return of His Mother. (Dispatches)


Franke-Ruta, Garance, The American Prospect


ON JAN. 13, SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (D-Conn.) vowed to return to the national campaign trail and seek the presidency. And that can only herald one thing: the return of Marcia "Baba" Lieberman.

The 88-year-old mother of Sen. Lieberman may be a little weak in the arthritic knees these days, and she says she's at the point where she really only gets out of her Stamford, Conn., house two or three times a month. But once her son's campaign kicks into high gear, she'll be back out in her wheelchair and back on the hustings with her good friend and handler Moises "Moe" Vela, a former Al Gore staffer and self-described "41-year-old bald, gay Latino." She'll chat up reporters and voters and audiences of senior citizens, telling them all about her son's positions on Social Security, Medicare and prescription drugs, beaming with pride and telling anyone who'll listen just why her son would "make the best president."

Those who follow Sen. Lieberman's campaigns cannot help but learn about the senior Lieberman--or Baba, as she is often called, using the Yiddish word for grandmother. She's been his volunteer liaison to Connecticut's senior citizens since 1988. The senator peppers his speeches with anecdotes about her and what she's told him. Her first cameo in the 2000 race came during Lieberman's speech accepting the vice presidential nomination from Gore. After the speech, in Stamford, Baba asked her son for a ride home--a ride that involved a 50-car motorcade--and then charmingly insisted that then--Vice President Gore, also in the cars, come in for cheesecake and coffee. Marcia Lieberman, dispenser of warmth and wisdom, quickly became an iconic figure in Sen. Lieberman's stump speeches and debates with Dick Cheney.

During a race in which the Democrats struggled to regain their footing on family-values issues, trotting out Baba and the whole close-knit Lieberman clan helped quell fears about Democrats again subjecting the country to the trauma of presidential scandal. The Los Angeles Times described tier as "the quintessential Jewish mother."

Baba, for her part, quickly won over the press corps and the Gore-Lieberman campaign staff. Where Gore's mother, Pauline, was a sophisticated lawyer, senator's wife and power player in her own right, Baba, a bakery truck driver's wife with a high-school education and a modest home, came to exemplify the decent, unpretentious working class of yore. And she wasn't afraid of playing the archetypal Jewish mother for effect. When CBS assigned a reporter to follow her one day in Florida, she tried to play matchmaker for the young man. In September 2000, she sent care packages wrapped in brown paper to reporters. Prepared with a little help from the Gore-Lieberman press advance team, they included bagel chips, lip balm, an apple, tissues, postcards for reporters to write their mothers and a handwritten note that read: "Please be kind to my son! Enjoy. Marcia Lieberman (Joe's mom!)." The care packages generated the following inimitable correction in The New York Times:

"A report in the Campaign Briefing column yesterday about gift packages sent to reporters by Marcia Lieberman, the mother of Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, misspelled the brand of bagel chips she included. It is Manischewitz, not Manishewitz."

The stories, like all stories about a candidate's family, had a humanizing effect. Within the campaign, some considered them more valuable than straight policy coverage. "It helps on the family-values side of politics and it also helps to make personal connections with voters in an impersonal age," notes Larry Sabato, a political analyst and professor at the University of Virginia.

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Liebermama: The Return of Joe Lieberman Means the Return of His Mother. (Dispatches)
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