WASHINGTON — Three years ago, a Senate probe into Clinton administration fund-raising was roiling Washington. Republicans on the Government Affairs Committee suspected that China had been secretly trying to buy friends and influence the U.S. government. Panel Democrats thought — well, they thought somebody had been reading too many Tom Clancy thrillers.
Then a mournful-faced Democratic senator from Connecticut stood outside the hearing room and, for a while, changed the investigation's tone.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman said an FBI briefing had convinced him that the GOP might be on to something.
"I conclude that there was in fact a Chinese government plan to move money into America's congressional elections last year," said Lieberman on July 15, 1997.
It was a classic Lieberman moment, not so much nonpartisan as a studious response to facts.
It presaged a later, better-known Lieberman speech: his 1998 denunciation of President Clinton's liaison with Monica Lewinsky as "immoral."
And it demonstrated once again that on issues he cares about — particularly those with a moral dimension — Lieberman follows no one's precepts but his own.
"He does a lot of positive things for the Gore campaign. He is generally viewed as the moral backbone of the U.S. Senate," says Sandy Maisel, a professor of government at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
Friends say his character is reflected in his religious beliefs. An Orthodox Jew, Lieberman did not attend the state convention that nominated him to first run for the Senate in 1988 because it was held on the Jewish Sabbath. He sent a videotaped acceptance speech instead.
In Washington he will show up for a vote in the Senate chamber if one is scheduled for Saturday. But he climbs stairs to the chamber instead of using Senate elevators, in keeping with the Jewish proscription against Sabbath use of electrical appliances.
"He's really an example of someone who can bring values to the political discourse but knows how to bring them with both integrity to his Judaism and absolute respect and responsibility to a nation that has separated church and state," says Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, an interdenominational think tank in New York.
Joseph I. Lieberman was born Feb. 24, 1942, in Stamford, Conn. His father was a Realtor and liquor store owner. His mother was a homemaker.
He did well enough in public school to win entrance to the university of Connecticut's elite, Yale. (His home state residence remains New Haven to this day.) Like so many of today's politicians, his first taste of public service was during a college internship — in his case, working for both Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut and the Democratic National Committee. He went on to Yale Law, graduating with his degree in 1967.
In 1970, he ran for the Connecticut state Senate, and won. Among the volunteers working on his campaign was Bill Clinton, then a 24-year-old Yale law student.
He served in the state Senate for 10 years, the last six as majority leader. Then he ran for Congress, and lost, ran for attorney general, and won, and in 1988 undertook the race which changed his life when he took on incumbent Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker in a race few thought he could win.
A life-altering race
To this day the word experts use to describe that matchup is "odd." Weicker was an independent, often liberal Republican. Lieberman was an independent, tending to conservative Democrat. The conservative columnist William F. Buckley, a Connecticut resident, endorsed the Democrat in the race.
Eventually Lieberman convinced state voters that "maverick," a label Weicker wore with pride, really meant "unaccountable." He won, 50 to 49 percent.
In Washington, Lieberman's evident lack of ego has made him stand out in a chamber of prima donnas.
Dr. Arthur Levy, a neighbor and friend for more than 25 years, remembers lunching with Lieberman in Washington shortly after his election. Lieberman introduced him to then-Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire. The new lawmaker pointed at his neighbor and said to Rudman, self-mockingly, "this guy can't believe I'm a real senator."
"Oh, he's a real senator all right," Levy says Rudman told him. The implication was that he was more than that.
Critic of Hollywood
In the Senate, Lieberman is best known for work on issues that have a moral dimension. He has worked closely with the conservative Bill Bennett, for instance, against excessive sex and violence in Hollywood and rap music. He was a key source pushing for television manufacturers to include V-chip electronic blocking devices in their sets.
He broke with many in his party to push for a resolution in favor of fighting the gulf war in 1991. Nor does he hew to the party line on education. He has supported using taxpayer dollars to help poor children escape failing schools — though he has stopped short of endorsing vouchers for use in private schools.
He has gone "further on issues of accountability in terms of improved student achievement in exchange for federal dollars than most Democrats have gone and further on issues of teacher quality than most Democrats have gone," says Amy Watkins, an analyst at the Washington-based Education Trust, a public policy group that advocates for poor children.
Yet Lieberman remains resolutely a Democrat. He is a "New Democrat" in the Clinton mode, but a Democrat nonetheless.
In votes in 1998 he supported his party 80 percent of the time — a typical performance for his now-12-year Senate career. His rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action was 80 percent. "People don't perceive him as an old liberal Democrat. At the same time, he has had a strong reputation for personal integrity," says Donald Ferree Jr. director of the Connecticut Poll.