Al Gore underwent radical surgery on August 8. With one deft stroke, he attempted to cut away the tumor of scandal that has grown on his reputation for eight years, while at the same time strapping a moral prosthesis onto his stumbling campaign.
The miracle procedure even has a name: Joe Lieberman.
At a press conference in Nashville on Tuesday, Mr. Gore named the two-term Connecticut senator to be his running mate. Amid a sea of freshly printed Gore/Lieberman signs, Mr. Gore promised the Democratic ticket would "tear down a mighty wall of division.... Joe and I come from different regions and different faiths," he said, "but we believe in a common set of ideals."
Mr. Lieberman, at any rate, believes strongly. With the vice-presidential nod, he becomes the first Jew on a major-party ticket-and not merely ethnically Jewish, but Orthodox in his observance of Jewish law. That makes him a religious minority within an ethnic minority, and a distinct rarity in the largely secularized Democratic Party.
After being introduced as the party's vice-presidential nominee, an emotional Mr. Lieberman began his remarks with a prayer: "Dear Lord, maker of all miracles, I thank you for bringing me to this extraordinary moment in my life."
To some on the platform, the political forces that brought him to that moment in life were more evident than God's unseen hand. Following the GOP love feast in Philadelphia, polls showed George W. Bush opening up a 17-point lead over his Democratic rival-Mr. Bush's largest lead to date. Women and independents, in particular, were drifting to the Republican ticket, fed up with eight years of bad behavior in the White House.
For Mr. Gore, the challenge was finding a running mate who could stop the bleeding and restore some measure of moral rectitude to the Democratic ticket. Two other senators were finalists, but John Edwards of North Carolina seemed too inexperienced after just two years in the Senate; his years as a trial lawyer made him an easy target for charges of special-interest politics. John Kerry of Massachusetts had the right resumé, but his liberal voting record would have conflicted with the centrist image that Mr. Gore wants to portray.
So, shortly before noon on Monday, it was Mr. Lieberman who got the call. As he hung up the cell phone and stepped into his driveway, he gave reporters a thumbs-up and told them he had just said a short prayer with Mr. Gore. "My faith is a part of me," he said in answer to a reporter's question. "It's been at the center of who I've been all my life. Without God, I wouldn't be here. That's where it all begins."
When Mr. Bush named Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher, the comment elicited a wave of snickers and eye-rolling from the media elites. Not so with Mr. Lieberman. Though his religious observance would make most evangelical Christians look like slackers, initial reports have carefully avoided portraying his faith as challenging anyone else's lack of faith. Instead, he's "a man of principle," "a true religious believer," and "a devout Jew."
Just how devout? In 1988, when Mr. Lieberman first ran for the Senate against Lowell Weicker, a liberal Republican incumbent, he failed to show up to receive the nomination of his party. The convention was being held on the Sabbath, he explained, which precluded him from attending. He sent a videotaped acceptance speech, instead.
Throughout 12 years in the Senate, Mr. Lieberman has made similar adjustments to the rigorous demands of his faith. While some Orthodox Jews reject modernity entirely (somewhat like the Amish), Mr. Lieberman belongs to the modern Orthodox strand of Judaism, which seeks to balance ancient teachings with the demands of 21st-century life. For a Jewish politician in a secular milieu, that can sometimes require some creative adaptation.
During the Jewish Sabbath, for instance-from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday-Mr. Lieberman is supposed to take a rest from all "creative" labor. That means he can't turn the lights on or off, operate electric machinery, write, drive, or talk on the phone. Instead, he attends the Kesher Israel Synagogue in Georgetown on Friday evening and Saturday morning, where women and men gather in separate areas to pray and meditate.
Sometimes, however, the demands of public service intrude on the senator's Sabbath rest. During budget negotiations and the Clarence Thomas hearings, for instance, an aide drove to Georgetown to notify Mr. Lieberman of an upcoming vote. When the issue was urgent enough, the senator would walk three miles to the Capitol, where he cast a voice vote-pressing a button on the Sabbath would violate his religious convictions. If he were in a particular hurry, he might walk to the subway system. But once at the station, an aide would have to insert his ticket into the turnstile so he could get on the train.
Throughout his career, fundraising and ribbon-cutting have been out as Sabbath-day activities. But, with the guidance of his rabbi, Barry Freundel, Mr. Lieberman has worked out exceptions to his Sabbath rest, based on the principle of pikuach nefesh-a Hebrew phrase meaning "respect for human life." During the Balkan conflict, for instance, he visited Bosnia, even though it would mean traveling on the Sabbath.
But though Mr. Lieberman will break the Sabbath out of respect for human life, he won't break ranks with his party on that issue. Instead, he has voted to defend even the most extreme types of abortion. In 1996, for example, he voted to uphold President Clinton's veto of a law banning partial-birth abortions, despite, as he claimed, "a growing personal anxiety that something very wrong is happening in our country." He also co-sponsored the Freedom of Choice Act, which would have established a federal statutory right to abortion even broader than Roe vs. Wade. Among other things, it would have overturned state laws that banned third-trimester abortions or required 24-hour waiting periods.
"I consider [his abortion votes] to be indefensible," said Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Toward Tradition, a politically conservative Jewish group. "It's very unusual; most Orthodox Jews are strong opponents of abortion ... [Mr. Lieberman] is very much a liberal Democrat whose speech is different from his actions.
"I'm always mystified by anyone who claims to be an Orthodox Jew and yet is a liberal," Rabbi Lapin says. "One tenet of secular liberalism is the adoption of evolution as an article of faith. It underpins the liberal position on almost every single political issue," because it frees humans from responsibility to their Creator.
Despite the anomaly of his pro-abortion votes, Mr. Lieberman has often stood to the right of his party on other issues. He made headlines by teaming up with William Bennett to bestow "Silver Sewer" awards on the worst "cultural polluters" in the entertainment industry. He has voted in favor of prayer and religious symbols on public-school campuses. He favors the death penalty, partially privatized Social Security, a national missile defense system, and experimental voucher programs for children in failing public schools.
And then there was his Monica Lewinsky speech. On Sept. 2, 1998, while other Democrats were keeping their mouths shut, Mr. Lieberman took to the Senate floor to blast President Clinton for his behavior toward an intern. "Such behavior is not just inappropriate, it is immoral," he charged. "And it is harmful, for it sends a message of what is acceptable behavior to the larger American family, particularly to our children, which is as influential as the negative messages communicated by the entertainment culture." Under Mr. Lieberman's political cover, other Democrats found their voice. The White House reeled. Belatedly, President Clinton offered an apology to the nation.
By tapping Mr. Lieberman, then, Vice President Gore took a dramatic step out of the formidable Clinton shadow. The president's most outspoken Democratic critic gives an aura of independence and moral probity to his would-be successor. Rabbi Lapin put it bluntly: "Gore picked [Mr. Lieberman] to separate himself from the stench surrounding the Clinton scandals. That's what it comes down to."
Still, the choice is not without political risks. On Monday, TV news shows again and again broadcast clips of Mr. Lieberman's scathing denunciations of President Clinton. As the defining moment in Mr. Lieberman's Senate career, the speech may serve to remind centrist voters of exactly what they dislike about the Clinton/Gore administration-the very thing that Mr. Gore would most like them to forget. Also, the Lieberman speech was notable primarily because it was so rare at the time. Other leading Democrats-especially Al Gore-remained deafeningly silent. Thus, the moral courage at the bottom of the ticket could make the political pandering at the top of the ticket seem all the more craven and cowardly.
So the radical surgery on Al Gore's image is complete. But the prognosis is still far from certain.