Joe Lieberman’s Nomination Sets Off Latest Jewish Media Conspiracy Theory

With the selection of Senator Joseph Lieberman to run for Vice President, the Democrats unveiled an all- New Republic national ticket that you might know as Gore-Lieberman, but which inside the magazine could be called Peretz-Wieseltier.

Where the friendship between Mr. Gore and Martin Peretz, publisher of The New Republic , goes back to Harvard, when Mr. Gore was an undergraduate and Mr. Peretz was his professor, the connection between Senator Joseph Lieberman and the political opinion weekly is more recent.

Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic for nearly two decades, counts Mr. Lieberman as a close friend.

Mr. Wieseltier said he met Mr. Lieberman shortly after he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1988. “When he came to the Senate he moved down the street, California Street,” said Mr. Wieseltier. “We had a mutual friend who had an apartment down the street”– New Republic insiders said it was the other Senator from Connecticut, Christopher Dodd–”and before Joe and Hadassah had a place to live in town, they lived down the street, that’s how we met.”

When Mr. Wieseltier’s father died in the spring of 1996, the editor returned to his Jewish Orthodox roots. He began attending Kesher Israel, an Orthodox congregation in Georgetown, daily in order to recite the kaddish, the traditional 11-month ceremony of daily prayer by a Jewish son for a dead father. The process became the basis for Mr. Wieseltier’s book Kaddish , published in 1998.

Kesher Israel also happened to be Mr. Lieberman’s synagogue since he had arrived in Washington.

Seeing each other regularly brought the two closer. Their rabbi, Barry Freundel, said, “I have a feeling they knew each other before, but I remember when Leon started showing up they became real friends “

In a 1999 profile of Mr. Wieseltier in The New York Times Magazine , Mr. Lieberman said of Mr. Wieseltier’s kaddish, “His father’s death brought him back to the synagogue, step by step.”

Some in the New Republic circle say this is due to the fact that the services at Kesher Israel, where men and women pray separately, tend to be pretty informal, providing an opportunity, for instance, to razz Mr. Lieberman for going on a fundraising trip. (In D.C., this is pretty raucous stuff.)

Mr. Wieseltier didn’t want to get into the details of their friendship.

“I don’t want to make a career out of my friendship with Joe or anyone else,” he said. “The older I get, the more vivid concern I have for living privately.” He did say, though, “We see each other, we like each other, we discuss small things and large.”

Earlier this year, Mr. Wieseltier hosted a book party for Mr. Lieberman, who had just written In Praise of Public Life , at a new kosher restaurant in Washington called L’Etoile. According to one guest at the party, Mr. Wieseltier introduced the Senator as “the next Vice President of the United States.”

Mr. Lieberman then “got up and took the mike,” said the person who attended, “and said that was absolutely the strangest nominating speech he had ever heard.”

Mr. Wieseltier doesn’t claim any influence over the Gore campaign’s choice–”I’m not close to Gore, I’m not privy to any deliberations”– but he said he was “unequivocally delighted” with the announcement that his friend from synagogue was now running for Vice President.

“It had been my thought for a while,” he said, “that among the two or three people that Al might have picked, Joe would have been a very good choice. Not just for personal reasons, but I liked his ideological and political profile.” Mr. Wieseltier pointed to Senator Lieberman’s pro-interventionist stand on Bosnia and his support of school vouchers.

Meanwhile, at the rest of The New Republic , where the owner, Mr. Peretz, has been associated with Mr. Gore’s Presidential plans since 1988, it will be interesting to see how the magazine handles its coverage this year.

Though others have been quick to brandish the dreaded phrase “conflict of interest” to describe the Gore-Peretz relationship, the charge has never seemed to ring true. The New Republic , as an opinion journal, is biased by definition. Unlike a newspaper, where credibility hinges on independence, The New Republic has had favorite candidates through its entire history. The question for those who work at the magazine is simply one of intellectual honesty: Are they making arguments they believe in, or are they printing the company line?

Mr. Peretz said he expected “no consequences to the magazine.” He added, “I’m a friend of the Vice President and a lot of our writers have been pretty rough on him.”

Mr. Wieseltier said that because he confines himself to the back-of-the-book arts and literary coverage, he does not imagine that his views on Mr. Lieberman would be a problem.

“If your anxiety is about the integrity of the front of the book, I really count on Peter to look after that,” Mr. Wieseltier said, referring to the current editor, Peter Beinart.

“After the Andrew Sullivan debacle,” he said, referring to that New Republic editor’s resignation in 1996, which some said came as the result of a Wieseltier machination, “I decided, there was this silly idea that because I’ve been there since the late 19th century and I’m a close friend of Marty’s, basically I very quietly pull all the strings. And I don’t, because I have all the work and authority I need at the back of the book.”

The current editor, Mr. Beinart, did not return repeated calls for comment.

With or without Mr. Wieseltier’s influence, the Gore campaign can expect a generally affectionate treatment in the pages of The New Republic . Through the years, Mr. Lieberman has consistently received approving, if not thorough, coverage in The New Republic . Often he is singled out as an exception when other Democrats are criticized. In 1997, when Democrats at the Senate campaign finance hearings were accused of being the Clinton administration’s accomplices, The New Republic noted “the honorable exception of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman.”

And in November 1998, shortly after Mr. Lieberman condemned President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, the magazine published a glowing profile–”Not Your Average Joe,” by senior editor Gregg Easterbrook–of Mr. Lieberman. It concluded that “Lieberman ranks among the Senate’s best.” During Mr. Clinton’s impeachment, when the entire New Democrat project– The New Republic ‘s political foundation for the better part of a decade–looked to be crumbling due to the scandal, Mr. Easterbrook pegged Mr. Lieberman as the standard-bearer for the cause most closely identified with the magazine. According to Mr. Easterbrook, the idea came from him, however, along with then-editor Charles Lane, and not Mr. Wieseltier. After Mr. Lieberman was chosen as Vice President Gore’s running mate, the Easterbrook profile was the first article about the senator posted on The New Republic ‘s Web site.

Mr. Wieseltier was hardly concerned. “I’m not a journalist,” he said. “I never called myself a journalist. I write books and I do what I do, but I don’t cover things.” As for The New Republic , he said, “We make arguments. We don’t have to be fair. We have to be right.”

Then he noticed that it was getting close to 1 p.m. and Mr. Gore and Mr. Lieberman were getting ready to announce their ticket in a Nashville ceremony. “I’m going to go into work and watch it with my colleagues so we can be suitably irreverent about everything that is said,” he said, as he headed out the door.

Speaking of Al Gore’s selection of a running mate, let us pause to note that New York Post gossip columnist Neal Travis came within one day of putting a feather in his fedora by scooping pretty much all of political punditry. Way back on July 26, before Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts became the odds-on favorite to be Mr. Gore’s Vice Presidential pick, Mr. Travis wrote that Senator Joe Lieberman was the “hot” name among Democrats, and that “some of Gore’s top people really want to play the Jewish card.”

In his Aug. 7 column–the one that hit the stands right before news leaked out that Mr. Lieberman had gotten the nod–Mr. Travis seemed to get cold feet on his hot choice and fell in line with the conventional wisdom. “The smart money last night was on Sen. John Kerry to be chosen tomorrow as Al Gore’s running mate,” Mr. Travis wrote from his Hamptons summering spot. “I was one of the first to float the name of another strong contender, Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), but now I believe he’s been ruled out.”

“I know, I backed away,” Mr. Travis said when reached for comment. “It pisses me off. I got this from the most wonderful source,” he said. Mr. Travis explained that he heard the dirt on Mr. Lieberman from a guest at a recent dinner party where Gore campaign guru Bob Shrum was in attendance. “Shrum was declaring quite definitely that Lieberman was the man,” Mr. Travis said.

But after a week of discussions with other sources close to the Gore campaign, by the night of Aug. 6, he decided to fold his hand and go with Mr. Kerry.

That’ll teach him.

As for the scribes who report news rather than prognosticate it, while struggling for just the right word to describe Mr. Lieberman’s selection, amazingly, quite a few settled on “bold.” A Nexis search of stories and television transcripts from Aug. 7 and 8 showed the word “bold” was used at least 65 times–often in captions, headlines and leads–to describe the Gore campaign’s Vice Presidential choice. The New York Times was a particular fan, calling the move “bold” in three of its front-page stories, a front-page sub-headline and the lead editorial.

Interestingly, the Democrats’ “talking points” on the Lieberman pick, obtained by The Observer, don’t include the word “bold,” though Mr. Lieberman’s wife, Hadassah, used it during her brief remarks at the big Tennessee announcement.

Before Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove starts complaining about liberal media bias, he should note that a good chunk of the media stuck to some form of “triumph” in characterizing George W. Bush’s performance at the Republican National Convention. In the days following Mr. Bush’s Aug. 3 speech in Philadelphia, the word popped up at least 51 times. The USA Today lead in its Aug. 4 paper was typical: “George W. Bush triumphantly accepted the GOP presidential nomination Thursday night …” Hey, give those flacks a raise!

In its search for the “It” girl, Vanity Fair didn’t have to go too far. Discovering Plum Sykes, for instance, only required a short elevator trip to the 12th floor, where Ms. Sykes works as a fashion features writer for Vogue . To find Patricia Herrera–who is posed topless on page 329– Vanity Fair editors needn’t have left their 7th floor office, because that’s where Ms. Herrera works as associate fashion editor.

Senior articles editor Aimée Bell defended the choice of featuring fellow editor Ms. Herrera. “I think there’s no getting around it. She’s an ‘It’ girl,” Ms. Bell said. “The topless issue aside, it didn’t seem to bother anyone.” She added, “It’s kind of an ‘It’ girl thing to do to work at a magazine.” (Brooke de Ocampo, who’s on the masthead at Harper’s Bazaar , made the cut as well.)

“If [Ms. Herrera] was any less of an ‘It’ girl,” she said, “I would have been worried we were promoting her. But to leave her out would have been a disservice.” To whom, exactly? “To the scholars of ‘It’-girldom.”