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Jewish World Review March 24, 2000 / 17 Adar II, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Are We Ready
for a Jewish Veep?

Al Gore could do a lot worse than Joe Lieberman, and probably will -- MY OWN PERSONAL political-nightmare scenario doesn’t involve a coup d’etat by right-wing lunatics who attempt to take over the government of the United States. I’ll let other people worry about that unlikely possibility.

My nightmare is what is supposed to be every Jewish mother’s fantasy: a Jewish president of the United States. That is, a Jewish president who cares nothing about Jewish values and would be a role model for apathy about Jewish life and ambivalence about Israel. Such a president would be, in my opinion, not good for the Jews.

That nightmare comes partly to life in a film called “Deterrence,” which opened recently. The movie, a low-budget, mediocre political thriller is built around the concept of a non-elected Jewish president having to decide about a possible war in the Middle East.

The president in the movie, as played by the nebbishy-looking Kevin Pollak (I guess Harrison Ford was busy), is a strutting, trigger-happy little guy who tries to appear tough. When asked during a crisis about his Judaism, he replies that he is an atheist. Talk about reinforcing the non-Jewish world’s stereotypes about Jews!

This movie isn’t especially noteworthy, but it did get me thinking about the likelihood of any Jew ever becoming president of the United States. The answer is, of course, not very likely — but not altogether impossible, either.

The Jewish presence in every significant aspect of American life is a given these days. If 11 Jews can serve simultaneously in the U.S. Senate, it isn’t that much of a leap of the imagination to see one of them in the White House — or at least as vice president.

Of course, in 1996, Pennsylvania’s Sen. Arlen Specter did make a brief run for the Republican nomination for president. But, with all due respect to Specter, virtually no one thought his candidacy was realistic. Given the forces at play inside the GOP that year, he probably would have had a better shot at being elected pope than at winning the Republican nomination. Which brings us to this year’s scenario for placing a Jew on the national ticket of one of our major political parties. And, for the first time in memory, a lot of the spin about who might be the presumptive Democratic candidate Al Gore’s choice to succeed him as vice president has mentioned a Jew as a realistic alternative.

Actually, three Jews have been mentioned: Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, California Sen. Diane Feinstein and Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman. But my impression is that the only one remotely realistic is Lieberman, whose putative candidacy has lately benefited from a lot of journalistic support. Lieberman, who has never discouraged speculation of this sort, has been promoted by insiders, such as TV talking head Morton Kondracke, who is the editor of the Capital Hill newspaper Roll Call; there have been others as well. Interestingly, Lieberman’s candidacy was also recently plugged by the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard.

Why Lieberman? As someone who covered the senator for several years and got to know him while at my old post in Connecticut, I can answer the question easily. Joe Lieberman is a mensch at a time when America knows it needs one.

Lieberman is, in some ways, the perfect veep candidate for the Democrats, whose major weaknesses relate to the moral legacy of the Clinton White House. Though Lieberman did not vote for impeachment, he did stand out as a critic of the president.

At a time when most Democrats were rationalizing the dishonorable behavior of the president, it was only Joe Lieberman who stood on the Senate floor in August 1998 and denounced Clinton’s antics as “disgraceful,” “immoral” and “too consequential for us to walk away from.” Almost alone on his side of the aisle, Lieberman insisted that illicit sex in the Oval Office was not “nobody’s business.” That took courage, not only because of his partisan allegiance, but because he is an old friend of the president’s. Similarly, Lieberman was the only Senate Democrat who did not try to obstruct investigations into Clinton’s 1996 campaign-finance shenanigans.

He had the ability to pull off those independent stands without other Democrats seeing him as a turncoat or an out-of-control maverick because of his personal moral stature.

A lot of that has to do with the fact that Lieberman is an Orthodox Jew who is not only conspicuously observant in a forum where religious Jews have been virtually unknown, but a person who actually does his best to infuse his work with Jewish values.

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If you read his recent book, In Praise of Public Life — which may be intended to boost his national political standing — you will find an author unafraid to talk to a non-Jewish audience in Jewish terms. We truly have come a long way when a Jewish politician in the United States can articulate his philosophy in terms of concepts such as tikkun olam and quotes from the Talmud.

Lieberman’s career has taught American Jews that they don’t have to assimilate or play down their Jewishness in order to rise to high places. In contrast to our general paranoia about anti-Semitism, his colleagues and non-Jewish voters respect him and look to him as a moral authority because he is shomer Shabbat. I cannot conceive of a more positive role model for Jewish youth.

Moreover, his non-ideological brand of politics has enabled him to work well across party lines on a host of issues. A true centrist, he is the model of the “New Democrat” that Clinton and Gore pretend to be. He supported the Gulf War, is a vocal critic of immorality in the entertainment industry and takes independent stands on issues such as his support for school choice. Yet, he is also still seen as a reliable Democrat on many bread-and-butter issues that appeal to liberals.

Lieberman is not a plaster saint. He’s a hard-headed politician. Though generally well liked, there are more than a few Democratic pols in Connecticut who resent him and are not shy about pointing out that when he sees a political advantage to be had, watch out. Try to get in his way and you'll soon have tire tracks on your back.

But the amazing thing about Lieberman is that in an era when Americans have come to view career politicians as a lower life form, he is that rare bird who not only can inspire personal respect but can actually make one believe again in the ideal of public service. He would lend gravitas to a ticket headed by a man whose prime characteristic is a willingness to say or do anything to get elected.

Is Lieberman really in contention? Only Gore knows for sure. The odds are still heavily against his being chosen. But, in marked contrast to my nightmare, Joe Lieberman is a Jewish politician whose elevation to the job would actually be good for the Jews.

Just as the election of George W. Bush may bring back the national fad his father inspired for the consumption of pork rinds, a Vice President Lieberman could actually make kosher observance fashionable.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin