Today in 2013, after over 40 years of public service to the people of Connecticut and having come within a few contested votes of being the nation’s first Vice President of Jewish faith, Senator Joseph Lieberman retired from politics. He decided not to run for re-election to the U.S. Senate, a decision informed, no doubt, by the anger generated among former supporters by several of his recent principled but unpopular positions.
Born in Stamford, Connecticut in 1942, Lieberman grew up attending public schools in his hometown before earning degrees from Yale University and Yale Law School. A lifelong moderate Democrat, he began pursuing his passion for law and politics almost immediately after graduation, becoming a Connecticut state senator at the relatively young age of 28. A protege of Democratic party boss John Bailey, Lieberman remained a state senator for 10 consecutive years, serving as the Senate Majority Leader for the last six years, and then was elected Connecticut’s Attorney General in 1983. He served in that capacity until 1988, when he defeated Republican Lowell Weicker to become one of Connecticut’s U.S. Senators. Lieberman served a total of four consecutive six-year terms as a U.S. Senator. During his final campaign in 2006, he was defeated in the Democratic party primary for Senate, largely due to his support of the unpopular Iraq War. He then decided to run as an independent candidate and won the three-way race for Senator by a sizable margin.
On the national stage, Lieberman is perhaps best known for being the vice-presidential candidate alongside Al Gore during the 2000 campaign for the U.S. presidency. Lieberman’s presence on the Democratic party ticket made him the first Jewish-American in history to be featured on a presidential ticket. While Gore and Lieberman won the popular vote, 2000 was the year of the “hanging chad.” The Electoral College swung in favor of Republican candidate George W. Bush following an acrimonious series of vote recounts and legal challenges. Lieberman resumed his duties in the Senate.
Joe Lieberman also developed a reputation of bucking partisan politics, a habit that both fascinated and frustrated fellow politicians on both sides of the aisle. In the 1990s, during President Bill Clinton’s series of sexual harassment scandals, Lieberman was one of the first Democrats to publicly condemn the president’s behavior, though he ultimately voted against impeachment. He was known to show up at rallies for Christopher Shays, a moderate Republican congressman from Connecticut, and his deep friendship with Republican senator John McCain led him to openly support McCain’s 2008 presidential bid, to the frustration of Democrats. Throughout his career, Lieberman supported bills that landed on both sides of the culture wars; he introduced the bill that brought about the repeal of the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, supported the War in Iraq, and was criticized for his efforts to prosecute online websites such as Wikileaks that disclose government documents.
Lieberman’s insistent efforts to steer a middle course between two divided parties ultimately earned him few friends in an increasingly polarized political arena, and in 2011, he announced he would not seek re-election to his senate seat. After a long, successful, and unconventional career in politics, Senator Joe –the “man in the middle”– finally stepped down, today in Connecticut history.
“Biography: About Joe,” Senator Joe Lieberman official website (archived)
David Lightman, “Sen. Joe Lieberman Made History But Will Retire a Man Without a Party,” McClatchy Newspapers
Morgan Chalfant and Joe Uchill, “Five Things to Know About Joe Lieberman,” The Hill