Free Joe Lieberman!

At the convention he gave up what made him worth choosing

Issue: "Life after Clinton?," Aug. 26, 2000

As my fellow bookend Joel Belz writes at the beginning of this issue, Senator Lieberman's Jewish orthodoxy has excited some media interest. So should a new political orthodoxy: the idea that "Me and My Shadow" is the only acceptable campaign song for a national ticket.

Through 1900, vice presidents usually retained some independence; the most crotchety of them, John Calhoun, almost came to blows with Andrew Jackson. Of course, Martin Van Buren replaced Calhoun on the ticket in 1832 for Jackson's second term, was slavish in his support, and became the only running mate to gain election to the presidency in the 19th century. Maybe there's some melancholy correlation between honest speech and political failure.

The 20th century sometimes brought the sounds of silence. John Nance Garner, Franklin Roosevelt's veep from 1933 to 1941, said the vice presidency wasn't worth "a pitcher of warm spit," but he was recognized as a Southern conservative who was on the ticket to balance out some of FDR's Northern liberalism. Garner went along with some New Deal programs but did not wave pompoms for them.

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The next Texas veep, Lyndon Johnson, changed his office just as he transformed the welfare system, promoting dependency in each case. After wheeling and dealing as Senate majority leader during the 1950s, LBJ felt castrated in the vice presidency under John Kennedy, but instead of remaining silent he spoke in falsetto, cheerleading for the New Frontier.

From then on loyalty to ideas became less important than loyalty to careers. By 1980 the tradition was so well established that when Ronald Reagan picked George H.W. Bush for the vice presidency in an attempt to unify the Republican Party, the senior Bush was expected to give up immediately his questioning of Reaganomics-and Mr. Bush did.

Since then we haven't had any clear examples of ideological ticket balancing until this year, when Al Gore picked a man who, while liberal, had not bowed down to some idols of political correctness. I told several journalists that I thought Mr. Gore's choice was a great one, because Joe Lieberman had supported school vouchers and some Social Security privatization, and opposed affirmative action and Hollywood immorality.

Along with many other evangelicals who also responded positively, I looked forward to Mr. Lieberman's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, hoping for evidence that he would not give up his principles in return for a potential promotion. When he took the podium, music from Chariots of Fire played-maybe because, just as Eric Liddell refused to run on Sunday, so Mr. Lieberman refuses to drive on Saturday.

But the senator's speech was not a profile in courage. Maybe he saw sticking to his guns akin to walking the plank, with leftists already worried about his deviance from the party line. Maybe he had spent a week talking only with Democratic party hacks and had descended to wit like this, immortalized as the Associated Press quote of the day last Wednesday: "Will you help me win this one for the Tipper?"

Whatever the reason, Mr. Lieberman in his speech had time to complain about discrimination based on sexual orientation, but on school problems he said, "We're going to target more education funding to the schools that need it most." That was it. Nothing about vouchers. (Ten years ago, however, he praised school vouchers, saying that "Money is not the only answer to the crisis in education.... We also have to shake up the system.")

Pundit Morton Kondrake called the speech "Joe Lieberman's bid to be accepted by the traditional Democratic Party." How will other journalists react? George H.W. Bush received a vicious bashing when he changed his tune on several issues, including abortion. The senior Bush had as a young man received air medals for bravery, but when he ran in 1987 and 1988 for the top job, Newsweek had a cover headline, "GEORGE BUSH: FIGHTING THE 'WIMP FACTOR.'"

In the dozen years since then, the liberal press has evidently matured, as it often does when assessing Democrats who represent the only alternative to Republicans. Last week Mr. Lieberman pledged that, if elected, he will stop issuing annual "Silver Sewer" awards to Hollywood folks he has called "cultural polluters." Newsweek-hired pollsters, however, were not out telling the populace, as they did three elections ago, that some folks saw the candidate as a wimp, and then asking, "Is this criticism a serious problem for Bush's candidacy?"

But here's the question I'd ask: How will candidate Gore get an integrity transfusion from the presence on the ticket of a Jolting Joe Lieberman turned propagandist? After all, Al Gore received praise for guts in choosing a running mate who had chastised Bill Clinton and opposed Mr. Gore himself on some critical issues. What's the point in selecting such a person and then having him give up what made his selection worthwhile?

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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