Joe Lieberman May Have Been the Guy Who Taught Me How to Create a Martini — And a Few Loftier Thoughts on a Principled Politician

Joseph I. Lieberman, Feb. 24, 1942 – Mar. 27, 2024

Joe Lieberman’s death this week brought back memories of my freshman year at Yale, when I made a brief effort to “heel” (that is, to try out for a position as a writer) at the Yale Daily News, the nation’s oldest independent college daily newspaper — of which Lieberman, then in his junior year, was the editor and chairman. In high school, I had spent all four years on the staff of our weekly student newspaper, the Megaphone, ending my tenure there as editor-in-chief. So I wanted to take on the greater challenge of the Yalie Daily.

Yale Daily News Building

The heeling effort required that I show up at the News Building after my last class every day to get — and complete — an assignment for the next day’s edition. Between doing the necessary interviews and writing the articles (I don’t write fast, and back then I was a lot slower than now), I found I was using the rest of my afternoon and early evening hours as a reporter, and none of them studying. The damage was quickly evident in my daily 8 a.m. performance in Russian language class, where lack of study could be neither obscured nor disguised.

So after three days of heeling, I woke up and asked myself whether I was at Yale to learn something and graduate … or to have an extracurricular fling as a reporter till I flunked out.

The question answered itself, triggering the end of my abortive “career” as a college journalist. Except for one little experience. After I’d handed in the draft of my third article the previous evening, one of the editors lassoed me into duty as bartender for a staff party. I’d never mixed drinks before and, standing behind a table laden with bottles of booze, I had to ask someone how to assemble a martini, the libation in highest demand. I don’t honestly remember who my “martini mentor” was, but I’d like to think it was Joe Lieberman himself.

Interior of the News Building, refurbished, updated (it used to be equipped with manual typewriters) — and a lot emptier — since I was last there

Earnest editorials foreshadowing a distinguished career
What else do I recall of Lieberman from those days? Most of all, the many earnest, thoughtful editorials he wrote, foreshadowing the indelible mark he would later make as the fearlessly principled political practitioner whose passing has now triggered an outpouring of praise from both sides of America’s current political chasm.

Here, from what I’ve found in reviewing back issues of the Yalie Daily, is some of what made Lieberman stand out to me back then as interesting and admirable:

“It was only after more than a century of isolation that the United States, through Woodrow Wilson, realized that its security demanded total involvement in the world and that its vision of man deserved extension. [Today] we wish to help in building stable and free governments throughout the world. We are interested in giving men everywhere access to the benefits of [our] modern time[s] so that they may be removed from the chains of poverty, sickness, and ignorance,” Lieberman said in his “American Dream” editorial on Feb. 5, 1963, one of dozens he wrote on issues including civil rights, desegregation, the Cold War and much else “that provide insight into [his] ideological origins.” (This John F. Kennedy-esque vision resonated with me then, and still does.)

One of Lieberman’s major concerns, dealt with in almost a dozen Yalie Daily editorials or front-page articles, was the struggle of blacks in the South. In a bylined column, “Why I Went to Mississippi,” he explained why he went to that then-bastion of segregation to campaign for a civil rights activist. In retrospect, this strong civil rights focus — which parallels the summer 1963 trip south that my freshman-year roommate, the late Damon Rarey, took in the same cause (and which reflects the kindred motivations that later propelled me into the Peace Corps) — helps explain at least in part why I still recall being impressed by Lieberman’s writings.

As a 2006 Yale Daily News article (published on the eve of Lieberman’s successful bid for reelection to the U.S. Senate — for a fourth term — as an independent, following his loss of the Democratic Party primary to a more liberal opponent) made clear, “signs of [Lieberman’s] relatively moderate” years in politics were “apparent throughout his [editorials]. He appear[ed] set on spreading democracy when possible, fear[ed] weapons of mass destruction and [was] not hesitant to criticize the Democratic Party” even though he “considered himself a loyal Democrat,” as several contemporary Yalie Daily colleagues recalled.

More thoughts
The impact of Lieberman’s nearly quarter-century of service in the U.S. Senate — and as a groundbreaking (as a Jew) candidate for vice president as Al Gore’s running mate in the election of November 2000 that ended with the victory of Republicans George W. Bush and Dick Cheney — is reflected by the following thoughts expressed in the wake of his death:

  • A former member of Lieberman’s staff, “a Washington veteran who’s seen it all [and is] not given to effusiveness or sentimentality”: “He was the epitome of decency and integrity. I really loved the man.”
  • Former President George W. Bush: “Joe was as fine an American as they come and one of the most decent people I met during my time in Washington. As a Democrat, Joe wasn’t afraid to engage with senators from across the aisle …. He engaged in serious and thoughtful debate with opposing voices on important issues. And in both loss and victory, Joe Lieberman was always a gentleman. I’m grateful for Joe’s principled service to our country and for the dignity and patriotism he brought to public life. … Laura and I pray that Joe’s example of decency guides our nation’s leaders now and into the future.”
  • Former Vice President Al Gore, speaking at Lieberman’s funeral: “Joe and I went our separate ways after 2000. [We] had some deep and sometimes bitter disagreements on policy and political matters. No matter how hard I tried or how hard Joe tried, we could not convince the other of the merit of our positions. I, for one, was tempted to anger at times, frustrated at Joe’s stubbornness and disappointed that he was taking a path that I thought was wrong. I know his disappointment in my turning away from him was surely just as profound. Here the story could have ended. If it had, we would have reached a dead end in a once loving and fruitful friendship. But it did not end there. We had another turn. Both of us knew deep down that the strong foundation of our friendship, and what we shared in common, was so much larger and so much stronger than what was driving us apart in those years. Joe had that wisdom.” In an earlier statement, Gore said, “I’ll remain forever grateful for his tireless efforts to build a better future for America.”
  • Wall Street Journal editorial board: “As a Senator, Lieberman supported Presidents regardless of party in promoting U.S. interests abroad. He backed George H.W. Bush in the first Gulf War, in contrast to most other Democrats at the time. … After 9/11, Lieberman supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and continued to do so even as liberal opposition grew and others who had voted for the Iraq intervention turned tail. … As a man of independent mind, he became active in the No Labels movement [he was its founding chairman] as it attempted to find a ballot alternative to Mr. Biden and Donald Trump this year. He was adamant that he didn’t want such a candidate to be a spoiler. A younger Joe Lieberman would have been the ideal No Labels candidate.”

Wonderful sentiments. Rest in peace, Senator, and may your memory be a blessing to our nation!

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