Cover Story

Miracle cure?

Fighting against "Clinton Fatigue," Al Gore picks a running mate who was his boss's harshest Democratic critic during Monicagate and who opposes the White House on key issues. Will Joe Lieberman be able to restore moral rectitude to the Democratic ticket?

Issue: "Lieberman vs. Gore," Aug. 19, 2000

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."

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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.


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