Bennett Accuses Lieberman of `Sellout'

Article excerpt

SUNNYVALE, Calif. - William J. Bennett, the former secretary of education and author of "The Book of Virtues," yesterday broke with his longtime ally in the culture wars, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, for "selling out" to Hollywood and for failing to condemn a joke, mocking faith in Christ, at a Democratic fund-raiser. Mr. Bennett, together with several other conservative Christian leaders, had stoutly defended the Connecticut senator for six weeks after Vice President Al Gore selected him as his running mate. But after reading news accounts yesterday that Mr. Lieberman had assured entertainment executives on Monday that he would merely "nudge" them away from marketing sex and violence to children, Mr. Bennett withdrew his support.

The senator was rebuked as well by Jewish leaders who said he had misrepresented his own faith in a national radio interview.

Mr. Bennett was particularly angered that Mr. Lieberman sat by while "Seinfeld" executive producer Larry David mocked Christian faith with a joke at a star-studded $4.2 million Democratic fund-raiser in Beverly Hills., Calif.

Mr. David, who is Jewish, said: "Like [Texas Gov. George W.] Bush, I too found Christ in my 40s. He came into my room one night, and I said: `What, no call? You just pop in?' "

The joke amounts to "ridiculing Christianity and reducing it to the level of Borscht-belt humor," Mr. Bennett said in a telephone interview last night.

Mr. Lieberman's decision not to leave the fund-raiser at the home of supermarket millionaire Ron Burkle was a tacit endorsement of the joke, Mr. Bennett said.

"You've got to walk out. At least you've got to say, `Gentlemen, this isn't the kind of thing we should be talking about or making fun of,' " Mr. Bennett said. "I can't tell you how disappointed I am in Joe Lieberman."

Mr. Lieberman's spokesman said last night that her boss meant no disrespect.

"Joe Lieberman has a great respect for persons of faith and he would never agree with anyone who would make disparaging remarks about someone else's faith," Jodi Sakol said.

Mr. Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, ran into flak from several rabbis for his interpretation of Jewish doctrine. On Friday, radio and television interviewer Don Imus asked Mr. Lieberman whether Judaism places a ban on "interracial or interreligious marriage or dating or that sort of thing."

The Connecticut senator replied: "No, there is no ban whatsoever. Certainly not on interracial. And not on interreligious."

Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America, disputed Mr. Lieberman's interpretation. He told Binyamin L. Jolkovsky of JewishWorldReview.com, an Internet news site, that there is "a clear and irrevocable Torah prohibition" against a Jew marrying someone of another faith.

"It has nothing to do with race, as anyone from any ethnicity can become a Jew if he or she is sincerely motivated and willing to undergo Halachic conversion."

Mr. Gore and Mr. Lieberman lauded the entertainment industry at the Hollywood fund-raiser, a week after they denounced Hollywood for peddling sex and violence to children.

"Al and I have tremendous respect for this industry," Mr. Lieberman told the 300 in attendance. Mr. Lieberman softened his earlier criticism, saying he and Mr. Gore, a Southern Baptist who also sat through the mocking joke, would merely serve as occasional critics or "nudges," a Yiddish term for gentle naggers. …