Joe Lieberman’s Daughter Rebecca Is Campaigning for Board of Ed

Joe Lieberman's Daughter Rebecca Is Campaigning for Board of Ed

Rebecca Lieberman and her father, Senator Joseph Lieberman at The Partnership for Public Service's Third Annual Black Tie Gala Honoring John McCain, Waldorf-Astoria, New York, June 16, 2005 (Jimi Celeste/ ©Patrick McMullan)
Rebecca Lieberman and her father, Senator Joseph Lieberman at The Partnership for Public Service’s Third Annual Black Tie Gala Honoring John McCain, Waldorf-Astoria, New York, June 16, 2005 (Jimi Celeste/©Patrick McMullan)

It was the night of Sunday, Aug. 6, the day before Vice President Al Gore was scheduled to reveal his Vice Presidential nominee, and Rebecca Lieberman, the eldest daughter of Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, was, by her own admission, going a little nutty. Ms. Lieberman, a 31-year-old graduate of Barnard College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, was no stranger to stress and responsibility; before taking a job with the city Board of Education, she worked grueling hours for three years at the Children’s Aid Society, scrounging to get poor kids health insurance.

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But this was different. She couldn’t turn off “the whirring” in her head, as she described it. She was in a house in the woods of Wellfleet, Mass., on Cape Cod, ostensibly to have a relaxing weekend away from Manhattan with her boyfriend of three months and her friends Melissa Kantor and Ben Gatchor. Her friends didn’t have a clue that Ms. Lieberman’s father was on Mr. Gore’s short list for Vice President. When the two couples had left the city on Friday, Ms. Lieberman tried to be discreet in packing her suitbag—why on Earth would I be bringing a suit to the Cape?—which contained a lavender wool suit that she thought would look presentable if, by some chance, her father called to say that she had to get to the nearest airport to join the rest of the family for the announcement. (“I thought that black would be a little harsh,” she said. “Black is not quite, you know, Nashville.”)

All day she’d been a wreck. Then, at about 8 o’clock, in a quiet place in the house, she called her father, who was home in New Haven. Mr. Lieberman sounded relaxed. “I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he told her.

Ms. Lieberman felt a twinge of disappointment, but she slept well, knowing that her life would continue as before: just a nice chatty Jewish girl, “the funny Lieberman,” living the single life in an apartment in Murray Hill, shopping, eating sushi, watching Friends at 11:00 p.m. and talking on the phone. Maybe, maybe , being the daughter of a Senator would get her into the New York Times wedding announcements. If that ever happened—a drama that seemed to be slowly tearing out the hearts of her father and her “Baba,” Marcia Lieberman, her paternal grandmother. “Unless there’s a ring on your finger,” her Baba liked to tell her mournfully, “I don’t want to meet anyone else.”

The next morning, her dad called, jubilant this time. “The news is reporting that I’m the choice,” he said.

Later in the morning, Ms. Lieberman’s boyfriend drove her to the airport, and she was off for her new life, the daughter of the Vice Presidential nominee, schlepping her own suit bag. She was officially in the hot seat.

On a balmy Wednesday in early September, exactly a month since her father had created a new vogue for the word “chutzpah,” and the week before her first official campaign trip (to Florida), Ms. Lieberman was holding a spicy tuna roll aloft in a set of chopsticks in the back garden of Yama, a sushi bar on Carmine Street in Greenwich Village. She was gesticulating wildly with the roll.

“This whole concept of a ‘hold’ is a new one in my life,” said Ms. Lieberman, referring to an area where candidates and families await photo ops. She has bleached blond hair that hangs down around her shoulders, and the facial plasticity and natural comic timing of a young Madeline Kahn. Ms. Lieberman seems to inject some degree of irony into every word that comes out of her mouth—a prominent mouth, which favors her father’s big Hamburglar grin. “There is always food in the holds at these events, and there’s never a guarantee that you’re going to eat, so then you begin to become this crazy eater. You’re not starving, obviously, but you definitely get the feeling of better eat now . All of our hold food is kosher. It was very confusing for the staff—you know, my sister [Hana] doesn’t eat meat, I don’t eat all this other stuff.”

What other stuff?

Ms. Lieberman blushed. “I have this little problem with grains,” she said. “I don’t have sprue, but it’s like a gluten intolerance.” Ms. Lieberman paused, looked sheepish and finally popped the roll in her mouth. “It’s so interesting,” she said, the sarcasm spigot turned on high. “You should definitely write about it … that I have discomfort and bloating when I eat pasta and bread and whatever.”

Ms. Lieberman, though gregarious and charming like Karenna Gore Schiff, has not absorbed the lesson that Ms. Schiff seems to have learned after eight years as the Vice President’s daughter—sometimes you have to draw a line between the public and the private. “I’ve had an easy rapport with the Liebermans because we went through a similar thing,” said Ms. Gore Schiff. “They had that same kind of excited but somewhat stunned look on their faces for the entire week of the convention.”

Less than two weeks after the announcement, as if by slingshot, Ms. Lieberman was hurled into Los Angeles for the Democratic National Convention, playing the part of a minor star in a major drama, and having the age and the presence of mind to see how incredibly weird it all was. “The idea that, at the convention, we could say hello to these people, the idea that I sort of had license to go up to anyone and be like, ‘Hi’—you know?” she marveled. “You know, I loved meeting Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I mean, how much Seinfeld have I watched in my life? She was lovely. Beautiful skin!”

Then came the less glamorous part. There was Rebecca Lieberman, a single, secular Jew cut from the Elaine Benes mold, appearing with her father—perhaps the most solemnly religious character to enter the political arena since Pat Robertson. Suddenly, The Washington Post was calling her mother, Elizabeth Haas, asking what the Lieberman family line was about dating the goyim. Ms. Haas, who was married to the Senator until 1981 and who freely admits that having her ex-husband as the Vice Presidential candidate has been a huge pain in the keister, put it this way: “Certainly it’s their father’s preference, and they don’t date people who are not Jewish,” she said.

“I think [Judaism] is something she struggles with, because she’s not as religious as her family,” said her friend, Ms. Kantor. “But one of the things she talks about is when she has kids, and is living this completely secular life, they’ll be completely cut off from all of their cousins, who will have a whole lexicon that they won’t have access to. But at the same time, she doesn’t want to live a really religious life.”

Those decisions, however, are not imminent. Not only is Ms. Lieberman not married, she’s not married while the entire nation watches. At a recent campaign stop at a rest home in New Jersey, Ms. Lieberman found herself being assailed by elderly women, all yelling, “Are you single?”

“I honestly think that I don’t know any single woman over 26 who wouldn’t like to be on the path to getting married,” Ms. Lieberman said, sounding wholly serious for the first time. “I mean, my friends, the people I know, want to find that person you’re going to spend your life with.” Ms. Lieberman’s romantic life has been a prominent topic in the Joseph Lieberman household; Ms. Lieberman and her stepmother, Hadassah, would habitually chew over the play-by-play of any date she had. “Hadassah is very into these long talks,” she said. “My dad would listen, pipe in occasionally. But Hadassah’s a great person to talk to about relationships.” These days, Ms. Lieberman keeps pretty quiet about her current relationship. “Now I’ve got them terrified, because I’ve said, ‘I don’t want to hear any more! I want to have this relationship on my own!'” The Liebermans did, however, tell Rebecca that they thought her boyfriend, who is Jewish, was “very nice.”

“There’s a branch of the family that thinks that Becca should get married real fast and have babies,” Ms. Haas said, sounding as though she did not wholly approve of the reasoning of that particular branch. Then Ms. Haas paused, apparently having trouble suppressing her inner grandmother. “My only concern is that she have babies while I’m still in good enough physical shape to help her take care of them. To which she says, basically, ‘What makes you think I want you to?'”

Every Wednesday night, Ms. Lieberman joins three women friends to eat take-out at one of their apartments. “My angels,” Ms. Lieberman calls them (somewhat ironically, of course). “Rebecca’s this amazing combination of incredibly funny, incredibly mean, but compassionate and loving,” said Ms. Kantor, an English teacher at Saint Ann’s in Brooklyn. “When Becca’s in a room, that is where you want to be. You want to be where Rebecca is at a party, but she’s not going to be doing something outrageous.”

Ms. Lieberman was born in New Haven in 1969, and just a year later, her father ran his first race for the state Senate. Her mother was his campaign treasurer. When they were young, Ms. Lieberman and her brother Matthew, who is two years older, went to Ezra Academy, a conservative day school where half their subjects were Judaic. Overall, life was sweet.

Then, in 1981, a year after Mr. Lieberman first ran for Congress, the Liebermans divorced. A year later, in the middle of his run for state attorney general, Mr. Lieberman was set up on a date with a fellow divorcee named Hadassah Freilich Tucker. The following year, they were married. “Truthfully, I was very close to [Hadassah] when they first met,” Ms. Lieberman said. “When they got married, it was a shocking change, and I was an adolescent. There were a couple years of difficulty. But we all worked hard to get through it and now I adore her.”

Adolescence, Ms. Lieberman said, was not kind to her, but it created an unbreakable bond with her father, who shared custody with his former wife, Ms. Haas. “I remember being a teenager and walking downstairs and I had night braces—you know, the headgear-and I was like five-eight when I was in seventh grade and a little plump,” she said. “I came downstairs, with a drool-crusted face and a big Benetton sleep shirt, totally, like, foul—the embodiment of foul adolescence. And he just looked at me and said, ‘You’re so beautiful.’ I was like, ‘You … are … from … Mars! Beautiful? I can’t look at myself! I can barely breathe, I’m so disgusting!'” But she appreciated it.

Which is not to say that father and daughter always agreed. In 1991, shortly after Ms. Lieberman graduated from Barnard and a few days before Anita Hill’s allegations against Clarence Thomas emerged, Mr. Lieberman made a stirring speech on the Senate floor supporting Mr. Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court. After Ms. Hill’s testimony, Mr. Lieberman was on the fence about voting for him. Rebecca Lieberman was aghast.

“No one would make that stuff up,” she remembers telling him forcefully. “And she didn’t make that stuff up. I’m telling you this is true, and how could you be so far away from this experience that is my life?” She said the experience “hurt me deeply. I actually started crying during that phone call, because I just couldn’t have felt further away from him.” Mr. Lieberman voted against confirmation, saying that his vote had been particularly swayed by his daughter’s appeal.

After working for three years at the National Helpers Network, Ms. Lieberman entered the University of Pennsylvania law school. After finishing in 1997, she moved back to New York and began working at the Children’s Aid Society. She quit the Society last July with no other job, but after she arrives back in New York from a sweep of a few Midwest states, she’ll report to work for Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy, creating partnerships between corporations and public schools. Before Election Day, Ms. Lieberman will work one day a week; after the election, she will work for the Board of Education full time, making $75,000 a year.

But first things first. It was 9:30 at night on Sept. 18, and Ms. Lieberman squeezed in a call to The Transom. She complained that, while in Florida, some kid stumped her by asking a question about the campaign’s views on gun laws. “I hate not knowing the answers to questions,” she groused. The following morning, Karenna Gore Schiff and company would arrive to pick her up at 8:15. She wanted to check out some policy papers online before going to bed. Ms. Lieberman started talking very quickly. “Then I’m going to New Hampshire, then I’m going to meet up with Billy Baldwin. Then I’ll be back on Saturday. Then I’ll be in Connecticut doing events on Sunday. Then I’ll be doing Board of Ed work on Monday. Then I’ll be on the road again.” Her other line clicked in. “I need to take this,” she said. And she was gone.

Joe Lieberman’s Daughter Rebecca Is Campaigning for Board of Ed