|Illustration by Ismael Roldan|
As Joe Lieberman spoke at Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH forum for presidential contenders last month, the overwhelmingly black audience clapped when he quoted Martin Luther King Jr. Yet how many would have applauded if they’d known that the candidate from the Nutmeg State was a fan of the author of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, which promoted the junk-science-for-bigots theory that blacks are genetically inferior to whites? How many realized that he had declared affirmative action to be “un-American,” called on the Democrats to abandon it and supported a California ballot initiative to ban it — all of which once caused the Rev. Jesse Jackson to travel to New Haven for a rally to denounce “Jesse Helms–Lieberman deals”? “We submit to the senator of this state,” Jackson roared in 1995, “that we have marched too long, and have died too young. We have been to too many funerals to turn back now! No, Mr. Lieberman, we are moving forward!” As recently as 1998, Lieberman’s Senate voting was so bad that the NAACP gave him a “D” rating on its report card.
This is just part of the record that Lieberman now tries to run away from. Most of the mainstream press corps keeps presenting a sanitized version of Lieberman’s bio, but some of the things he’d rather forget are well worth remembering now that he’s a national candidate.
On March 9, 1995, in remarks at the National Press Club, as chairman of the pro-corporate Democratic Leadership Council, Lieberman denounced the case for affirmative action as “an un-American argument because it’s based on averages, not individuals,” and went on to praise Ward Connerly’s Proposition 209, the misnamed “California Civil Rights Initiative,” which outlawed affirmative action: “I can’t see how I could be opposed to it, because it basically is a statement of American values.” The year before, the New Haven Advocate’s excellent Paul Bass — who’s covered Lieberman for 22 years — wrote, “After meeting with racist scholar [and Bell Curve author] Charles Murray, Lieberman promoted Murray’s idea of taking children away from mothers on welfare and putting them in new government-run orphanages (rather than, for instance, boosting support for agencies seeking to keep together families in crisis).”
Lieberman didn’t always talk that way — he started out in politics as a supporter of Robert F. Kennedy and an opponent of the Vietnam War. When he represented a half–African-American New Haven district in the state Senate, he paraded himself as a liberal friend to the poor. What changed?
Ambition, pure and simple. In the Reagan-landslide year of 1980, Lieberman ran for Congress — and lost to a GOPer who cut Lieberman’s 17-point lead in the polls by attacking him as “too liberal.” “After he lost, Joe was advised by party stalwarts he couldn’t continue to be a progressive across the board if he wanted to move up,” recalls Irv Stolberg, the liberal former speaker of the Connecticut House, and later the founder of the state’s progressive Caucus of Concerned Democrats. It’s hardly surprising that Lieberman listened to the party bosses: His undergraduate thesis — published in 1966 as a book, The Power Broker — was a hagiography of the tough and cynical John Bailey, Connecticut’s legendary ham-fisted Democratic boss, whose creed was “You do whatever you have to do to win.”
Take the 1988 campaign in which Lieberman won a U.S. Senate seat by defeating liberal GOPer Lowell Weicker. In that campaign, Lieberman attacked Weicker — who espoused views Lieberman once held — from the right. He was so conservative in that race that William F. Buckley Jr., founder of the conservative National Review and a Connecticut native, formed a political action committee to raise money for Lieberman. For example, Lieberman redbaited Weicker for opposing the trade embargo against Cuba (and, then as later, raked in significant campaign cash from ultraright Cuban exiles).
As a senator, Lieberman continued his path to the right. For example, Lieberman has a long record of political homophobia. Lieberman, who told the New Haven Advocate that “homosexuality is wrong,” joined with notorious homo-hater Jesse Helms in voting to take away federal funding from schools that counsel suicidal gay teens that it’s okay to be gay. On gays in the military, Lieberman has enunciated the now-discredited canard that “homosexual conduct can harm unit cohesion and effectiveness.” (Tell that to the dozens of countries, from England to Israel, that permit openly gay troops in their armed forces.)
In fact, Lieberman worked with Georgia’s Sam Nunn to fashion the destructive “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which resulted in escalating expulsions of gays from the military every year after it took effect. Its Catch-22 provisions have directly stimulated a rising wave of violent gay bashing and harassment in the military because victims can’t complain without “telling.”
This is just part of the record that has made Lieberman his party’s most notorious theocrat. The Scripture-quoting Lieberman made God-bothering a staple of his 2000 vice-presidential campaign: That August, Holy Joe told a Detroit congregation never to imagine “that morality can be maintained without religion.” This position was denounced as “unsettling” by no less than the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith (ADL), which released a letter to him arguing tartly that “To even suggest that one cannot be a moral person without being a religious person is an affront to many highly ethical citizens.”
Prayer in the schools? Holy Joe lined up with the GOP’s religious zealots to push it repeatedly in the Senate. Subsidizing parochial schools at the expense of public education? Holy Joe has sponsored legislation to give parents vouchers to send their kids to parochial schools, draining money from the public schools to which most Americans send their kids. And Lieberman just last year joined with rabid gay basher Rick Santorum — the Pennsylvania Republican who compared same-sex love to bestiality and incest — to co-sponsor George Bush’s faith-based initiatives, praising Bush’s “leadership” in tearing down the constitutional barrier between church and state. The faith-based initiatives turned out in practice to be a political-patronage operation for churches and ministers that support Bush. Lieberman’s censorious partnership with slot-machine addict Bill Bennett in attacking the entertainment industry has been widely publicized. Less well known, however, are Lieberman’s ties to a skein of religious-right and conservative organizations. Holy Joe has been closely involved with The Empowerment Network (TEN), which proclaims that it “provides the winning edge” on “the unleashing of faith-based initiatives and cultural remedies.” Lieberman and his buddy Rick Santorum are listed by TEN as Empowerment Caucus chairmen. As Bill Berkowitz has reported in his “Working for Change” column, TEN was “founded in 1992 by a coterie of right-wing ideologues.” They include Clint Bollick of the anti–affirmative action, pro–school voucher Institute for Justice; David Caprara, TEN’s current president, lately the American Family Coalition’s national director, and a former top aide to Housing Secretary Jack Kemp in the Bush I administration; and Sam Brunelli, national finance chairman of the Republican Liberty Council.
Lieberman, in 1995, joined with Lynne Cheney — the wife of Dubya’s veep and a longtime left-baiter of academics in universities — to found the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA, formerly the National Alumni Forum), whose mission was to fight “political correctness” on campus. ACTA, which has helped whip up anti-intellectual hysteria in the post-9/11 period, came to public prominence when it issued and widely publicized a McCarthyite blacklist of 117 so-called “anti-American academics” who questioned America’s infallibility in wartime. One of them was Douglas J. Bennet, the president of Wesleyan University in Connecticut. After this incident was aired in the Connecticut press, Holy Joe expressed “regrets” to the university prez and asked ACTA to stop identifying him as a “founder” on its Web site. But have-it-both-ways Joe didn’t resign from the group.
Then there’s Lieberman’s long record of coddling Corporate America, as befits a DLC ideologue who benefits from corporate campaign cash. If the Democrats failed to make political hay out of the corporate scandals when they still had control of the Senate — and thus blew a chance to revive their waning electoral fortunes — it was in large measure due to the conciliatory spinelessness of Lieberman as former chairman of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, which has primary jurisdiction over fraud and corruption within the executive branch. In an article, “The Tyranny of Triangulation: Can Joe Lieberman Lead?,” in the May 20, 2002, issue of The American Prospect, Nicholas Confessore related how “Three months after Lieberman said he would launch an investigation of Enron’s collapse, his committee has held only a handful of hearings and has yet to subpoena a single Bush administration official. Contrast [this] with [his predecessor, GOPer] Fred Thompson’s wide-ranging probe into fund-raising abuses during the 1996 election: The committee held 33 days of hearings, interviewed 200 witnesses, and issued dozens of subpoenas to Clinton administration officials.”
When Lieberman gave what aides billed as a major Enron-related speech in New York entitled “Business Ethics in the Post-Enron Era,” Lieberman told his audience that Enron was “a grand metaphor” — not for the dangers of market fundamentalism or crony capitalism, but “for the real human problems that profit pressure can produce when it is unchecked by personal principles or business ethics.” No mention from Lieberman of the many incestuous contacts Texan Ken Lay and his corrupt cronies had with top Bushies, including Vice President Dick Cheney, the husband of Joe’s pal. Holy Joe, of course, had taken Enron campaign cash, and his ex–chief of staff had become a pricey Enron lobbyist, as the AP later reported.
There’s so much corporate water carrying in the senator’s record it’s hard to do it justice. A little-noticed Jim VandeHei story in the September 11, 2000, Wall Street Journal detailed how Lieberman was the insurance industry’s “go-to guy on the Democratic side of the aisle.” He teamed up with Dick Armey to successfully limit lawsuits stemming from auto accidents by permitting lower rates for drivers who forfeit their right to sue for pain and suffering; and sponsored bills that limited legal damages against tobacco producers, HMOs and drug companies as well as against asbestos manufacturers and any business that manufactured a defective product — and, by extension, protecting their insurance companies. The chief lobbyist for the American Tort Reform Association — a lobby funded by manufacturers — told the National Law Journal, “If it were not for Lieberman, there would never have been a Biomaterials Access Act,” which immunized corporate giants such as Dow and Dupont against lawsuits for defective components used in the manufacture of medical implants.
Some of the worst corporate abuses and fraud were traceable to Lieberman’s 1993 success in squelching an attempt to make companies report executives’ stock options as part of their expenses. The Advocate’s Bass reported that Lieberman “went to bat for West Coast Silicon Valley high-tech execs to lead a fight against President Clinton’s promised curbs on runaway executive pay; the execs responded with a fund-raiser for Joe’s re-election.”
And the list goes on . . .
The Lieberman who opposed the Vietnam War also became, over the years, G.I. Joe. He’s never met a weapons system he didn’t like — consistently voting during the Clinton years for more money for the Pentagon than the administration requested.
G.I. Joe is a firm supporter of Ronald Reagan’s favorite movie-inspired fantasy, Star Wars. It’s now disappeared from his Web site, but when he was running for veep, his site’s “legislative accomplishments” section boasted: “Breaking with many in his party, Senator Lieberman was an original co-sponsor of legislation to spur the deployment of a missile defense system capable of protecting the U.S. against a limited attack.” Star Wars, of course, is a military-industrial boondoggle riddled with outright fraud and stratospheric cost overruns — and it still doesn’t work. G.I. Joe has willingly inclined toward every imperative of Bush’s national-security state — for example, he was a strong supporter of John Ashcroft’s notorious TIPS program, which would have turned America into a nation in which neighbor spied upon neighbor. When Vermont liberal Pat Leahy tried to include an amendment to the Homeland Security bill forbidding TIPS, Lieberman blocked the amendment. When the conventional wisdom turned against TIPS, as he was planning his national candidacy, Lieberman — in a typical finger-in-the-wind performance — withdrew his support for the program. (This was reminiscent of his pirouette on Clarence Thomas’ confirmation to the Supreme Court: Having promised his “yes” vote to the White House if they needed it, he waited until the end of the roll call, when Thomas had enough votes to be confirmed, and then voted “no” to keep the liberals and women’s groups at home off his back.)
But the quintessential Lieberman act of opportunism was his mad dash to the Rose Garden to stand shoulder to shoulder with Dubya and co-sponsor the resolution that gave away Congress’ constitutional power to declare war on Iraq — a war launched on a sea of Bush-Powell mendacities that Lieberman has yet to criticize.
All in all, as a Democrat, Lieberman makes a great Republican.