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Jewish World Review August 11, 2000 /10 Menachem-Av, 5760

Tony Snow

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Why do pundits laud Liberman's "morality"? -- JOE LIEBERMAN is a man of celebrated but enigmatic virtues.

We know he is a good guy, but don't know precisely what he believes. We know he practices civility, but not whether he does so out of magnanimity or political caution.

In many ways, he is the perfect candidate for an age that despises religion. He impresses us with his routine, but doesn't bother us with his faith. He exudes softness and geniality, yet he doesn't seem to consider any precept so sacred as to be non-negotiable or so profane as to be heretical.

Contrary to popular opinion, he has no "Jewish problem." Religion enjoys little of the prestige it did 40 years ago, when John Kennedy confronted questions about his Catholicism. While Kennedy had to reassure the public his religion took a back seat to politics, voters now assume politicians push religion into the nether reaches of their official lives.

Sure enough, Lieberman has turned away from doctrine on a number of tough issues. He has migrated from a qualified supporter of legalized abortion to one who promotes it under all circumstances. He voted against a ban on partial-birth abortion, explaining that he made a political decision about abortion long ago and would stick with it -- regardless of what Orthodox Jewish thinkers had to say.

On the arguably more controversial topic of gay rights, he similarly rejected rabbinical writ in favor of Democratic Party dogma.

This does not make him unusual, but it does raise questions about the extent to which his religious views influence his public actions. An old Yiddish maxim declares, "You can't dance at two weddings at the same time."

Washington sometimes demands that Lieberman choose between orthodoxy and political viability, and in such cases, viability usually gets the first turn on the floor.

So why do pundits laud his morality? Simple: The term "morality" has less to do these days with righteousness than good manners. We laud as "moral" those public men and women who praise decency and practice a modicum of conspicuous self-control. The press all but canonizes officeholders who avoid police detention -- and the standards creep lower each year.

You seldom see reporters or politicians linking politics and morality to religion; to do so would require acknowledging a higher authority. Hence, the president slaps an "extremist" brand on anybody who seems to believe the Ten Commandments have binding authority -- and the press lets him get away with it.

This resistance to righteousness explains Washington's preference for soggy talk about values over sterner discussion of virtues. It accounts for Congress' being more concerned with suggestive rock lyrics than pornographic behavior in the Oval Office.

During the impeachment ordeal, Lieberman gave an impassioned but vague sermon about the importance of good behavior in high places. But when it came time to count ballots, he chose bland lamentations over discipline. He defended not only behavior he had called indefensible -- he also looked away from evidence of far more disturbing crimes.

This does not make Joe Lieberman a cur. It makes him human. Furthermore, Lieberman's public agonies over doing the right thing could perform a great service for us all. They could help us identify and eradicate a confusion that plagues American public life -- the notion that government assists in salvation.

Lieberman twice in recent years has flirted with the insight. He did it when condemning Bill Clinton's X-rated dalliances and when he accepted Al Gore's offer of the candidacy. In the latter case, he mentioned the Creator 13 times in 90 seconds -- a record unsurpassed by Pat Robertson or Jimmy Swaggart. He even declared his selection a miracle, prompting one Jewish Democrat to say: "Deliverance from Egypt was a miracle. This isn't a miracle; it's a deal."

In giving credit to the Creator, Lieberman edged toward the obvious but earthshaking admission that we all have fallen and can't get up without divine assistance. Several important corollaries follow from this confession: No political party owns the monopoly on virtue, on morality, on ethics, on godliness. And while government can do some pretty amazing things, it can't offer salvation through public expenditure.

Only G-d saves -- and for free.

One senses that deep down, Joe Lieberman understands this -- and that his appreciation of human nature enables him to disagree amicably with his colleagues.

On the second day of his candidacy, Lieberman promised not to say disparaging words of his opponents. If he makes good on that vow, he will earn a small place in history -- and win or lose, will have taken a measurable step toward making politics respectable again.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate