Senator Lieberman: The Joe I Know

As someone who worked for Joe Lieberman for more than 17 years, I'm often asked, "What's wrong with your old boss?" Some fellow former "Lieberstaffers" have even been privately critical of his recent actions.
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As someone who worked for Joe Lieberman for more than 17 years, I'm often asked these days, "What's wrong with your old boss?" Even some fellow former "Lieberstaffers" have been privately critical of his recent actions on health care reform and worried about the effect on his legacy.

I understand the concerns and to some extent I agree with the critique of his position on the topic (at my age, a Medicare buy-in sounds pretty darn appealing). But in hearing pundits question Senator Lieberman's motivations, often suggesting it arises out of a "bitterness" over what happened in his 2004 presidential and 2006 senatorial campaigns, I feel compelled to talk about the Joe I know.

The Joe I know is not a bitter man, driven by pique over political slights. He can be a stubborn man, yes, prone to charting his own course (his favorite song is Frank Sinatra's "My Way"). But to paraphrase an old political quote, stubbornness in the defense of principle is no vice.

The Joe I know stubbornly refused to proceed with a vote on Clarence Thomas until a woman named Anita Hill had a chance to testify before Congress. His principled stance, so frustrating to conservatives at the time, gave Prof. Hill the opportunity to make her serious concerns about the Supreme Court nominee known.

The Joe I know stubbornly refused to go along with the majority of his party and conventional political wisdom and instead supported the first Gulf War, which was not only the right thing to do for America, it helped keep the door open for Democrats to recapture the White House in 1992.

The Joe I know stubbornly refused to accept compromise over the issue of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, drawing a "line in the tundra" and threatening a filibuster to preserve a great national heritage. His fervent support for the wilderness area was loudly denounced by then-Governor Sarah Palin.

The Joe I know always puts his faith and his family above politics, often to the annoyance of a media advisor like me. In a political neighborhood where the most dangerous place to stand is between a Senator and a camera, more times than I can remember I had to turn down major media invites because my boss wanted to be home with his wife and daughter, or it was the Sabbath.

I do not always agree with Senator Lieberman. I believe he was wrong in criticizing Barack Obama at the Republican Convention, and at other times in recent years. I've felt he chose the wrong words or the wrong venue to express his point of view, causing unnecessary headaches for him and problems for the Democratic Party. He's made mistakes in how he has talked about health care too. Though at the end of the day, a decent bill will pass (politics is about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the not-too-shabby) and Republicans will have precious little to campaign against next year (as former Senator Bob Kerrey argues here). A decent policy and political foundation will be in place upon which further improvements can be built.

My view of Senator Lieberman is admittedly clouded by personal friendship and gratitude (in the school of political loyalty I'm a little closer to the teachings of Prof. Rosemary Woods than, say, Prof. Scott McClellan). But here's a prediction: there will come a time in the next year or two when Joe Lieberman will take a stubborn and principled stand in defense of a great progressive cause.

Then it will be the right wing's turn to call him bitter, or worse. But to me, he'll just be the Joe I know.

Jim Kennedy served as a spokesman and speechwriter for Joe Lieberman between 1980 and 1997.

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