The Real Question: Is Lieberman Good for Anyone ?

There it was, an iconic diptych on an inner page of The New York Times , two side-by-side photographs accompanying two different stories. To the left, an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn with the three signs of his faith: a beard, a cell phone and an anxious expression. He wondered if Senator Joseph Lieberman’s pick as Al Gore’s running mate was good for the Jews. To the right, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, fleshy and beaming, explaining that Senator Lieberman is good for the Christians. God bless America.

Media sleuths have already turned their X-ray glasses on the Reverend Falwell’s bland bonhomie, for they have decided that if the Lieberman pick elicits any anti-Semitism, it will come from his part of the world, if not from operatives in the Bush campaign itself. Missing from these forebodings is any mention of possible fallout among blacks. It already started falling in Dallas, where Lee Alcorn, the head of the local chapter of the NAACP, observed that relations with Jews “at that kind of level” were risky because Jews are primarily interested in, “you know, money and these kinds of things.” The national organization rebuked Mr. Alcorn and attempted to suspend him, but so far from hanging his head in shame, Mr. Alcorn simply quit, promising to launch a competing statewide group.

If some peckerwood announces that God does not hear the prayers of Senator Lieberman, by all means let us hear about it; but let us monitor the behavior of the Democratic Party’s most loyal voting group as well.

I was in a way present at the creation of Senator Lieberman, because his national career was manufactured in the offices of The National Review . Mr. Lieberman’s opponent in his first Connecticut Senate race in 1988 was the longtime incumbent Lowell Weicker Jr., who was both a liberal and the biggest mass of gas since the Hindenberg exploded. So, although Mr. Weicker was a Republican, his long-suffering constituent William F. Buckley Jr. finally turned on him, campaigning in his column and his magazine for the Democratic challenger. Mr. Weicker lost, and the rest, given Senator Lieberman’s mild and genial manner, was non-history.

Senator Lieberman swam briefly into national view during the recent unpleasantness, when he scolded President Clinton for the workplace environment he maintained at the White House. A champion of tradition, homesick for the days when Presidents had plugged only actresses (J.F.K.) or Norwegian princesses (F.D.R.)-and then only in private-seemed to have arisen in the ranks of the Democratic Party. Not for long, though, as Senator Lieberman voted against both conviction and censure.

No one familiar with the Senator’s voting record was surprised by that scurry-down. Senator Lieberman’s reputation as a moderate on social issues is mostly hype. His support for school vouchers is all he can honestly claim. The rest vanishes when examined closely, like mirages on the interstate. He said he would vote to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, then didn’t. William Bennett and Senator Sam Brownback, good conservative social Republicans, testify to their esteem for him, but this is Washington-talk: the wishful thinking of would-be bipartisanship. Senator Lieberman criticizes popular culture, but so does John Simon; is he in the Senate to review movies? He takes the Mario Cuomo position on abortion; he would never have a partial-birth abortion himself, but he votes consistently to allow any woman to have one on demand. He gives us the modern free-spirit’s agenda, plus a few pious hand-wringings, minus grossness. He is Bill Clinton without cigars, Ted Kennedy without drownings. I am not making the weary charge that Mr. Lieberman is a hypocrite who says one thing and does another. All sinful men (which is to say, all men) do that. Political acts are themselves a form of speech, a public declaration of attitude. Senator Lieberman says one thing, then unsays it with his public deeds. He talks Orthodox, but he votes Ethical Culture.

In this sense Senator Lieberman is a perfect match for Al Gore, who got his start as a moderate Congressman from Tennessee, anti-abortion and pro-gun. Mr. Gore shed these positions as soon as he set his sights nationally. Mr. Lieberman doesn’t have any real positions to shed; he has arrived at the destination of liberalism without undergoing the exertion of betrayal.

All the busy calculations of advantage and disadvantage stimulated by the Lieberman pick will probably wash out, as they will with the Cheney pick. Hillary may gain in New York, and black turnout may fall, but these will be small bumps. A week ago I saw a notice in the Rosendale Café, my favorite vegetarian restaurant, announcing that Ralph Nader would appear at a rally in the Rosendale, N.Y., Recreation Center. Every old hippie in Ulster County will surely be there, and if they have nothing to fear from Mr. Lieberman’s substance, they can’t be pleased by the vectors of Mr. Gore’s feint in choosing him. But the Nader campaign will fade as fall comes. So will the angry left. The rioting kids may call themselves anarchists, but it’s all for show. They don’t murder presidents, as Leon Czolgosz did; they don’t even murder shoe-factory employees, as Nicola Sacco did. This campaign, like most recent ones, will be tamely bipolar.

Running mates have a way of highlighting the very problems they simultaneously solve. Just as George W.’s pick of a former Defense Secretary reminds us of the foreign-policy inexperience which prompted it, so Mr. Gore’s calculation that he needs to run with a pious Clinton critic underlines his own sleazy evasions (“no controlling legal authority”), including his loyalty to his sleazy boss. If foreign policy weighs less on the minds of voters than the sense that it is time for a change at home, then Mr. Gore is still at a disadvantage.

It is hard to measure feelings that are both complex and inchoate. Most Americans came to dislike Ken Starr and Linda Tripp; at the same time, the quid for letting Mr. Clinton serve out his second constitutionally prescribed term was surely that he would go quietly at the end of it, and allow some ventilation on Pennsylvania Avenue. Does this come from electing a henchman and a pseudo-critic, or a new team?