20 years later, Joe Lieberman reflects back on the moment he was picked by Gore

Lieberman shares what it meant to be the first Jewish member of a major party presidential ticket

The evening before Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore, then the vice president, announced his choice for running mate in the 2000 presidential election, Joe Lieberman, then the junior senator from Connecticut, received a call from his press secretary relaying some bad news. According to insider reports coming from the Gore campaign, the Democratic presidential nominee had made the tough decision to choose then-Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) as his running mate from a final list that included Lieberman and then-Sen. John Kerry (D-MA).

Lieberman, at home in New Haven, descended the stairs, opened a bottle of kosher wine and asked his gathered family to drink a l’chaim to an America that could provide the mere chance of considering the first Jewish vice president.

In reality, Gore had yet to make a decision, waiting until well after midnight to finalize his pick. The next morning, on August 7, 2000, Lieberman awoke to find media vans outside his Connecticut house, cable news blaring his name and reporters peering through his windows. The sudden media attention was unexpected, nearly catching the unaware candidate preparing the morning coffee in his boxers. A clip of Lieberman’s wife, Hadassah, taking out the trash barefoot made national television.

A few hours later, the campaign’s pre-selected vice presidential campaign staff arrived in New Haven. Like everyone outside of Gore’s inner circle, the staff had been previously unaware of the final choice, standing by with a charter plane in Nashville prepared to immediately fly to New Haven for Lieberman, Boston for Kerry or North Carolina for Edwards. Upon reaching the Liebermans’ door, they were surprised to be ushered by Hadassah directly into the basement where the candidate waited. And so, the 2000 Democratic campaign for vice president serendipitously began underground, in a cool respite from the August heat and prying media cameras.

***

Gore’s choice of Lieberman was predicated largely on the desire to appear independent from then-President Bill Clinton. Lieberman was not only widely considered a moderate with friends across the aisle, he had previously made national news after publicly rebuking Clinton on the Senate floor two years earlier during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

In a 24-minute speech that played across network news, Lieberman did not hold back in accusing Clinton of embarrassing “all of us as Americans.” The response was enormous, burnishing a growing reputation for Lieberman as a politician committed to public values.

In a testament to the chaotic strangeness of the Democratic Party at the time, the move caused Lieberman’s stock to rise even among the party establishment.

The media praised Gore’s “bold” choice, with Clinton himself calling it “gutsy.” As Lieberman describes in his book reflecting on the campaign, the president called him immediately, not only offering his best wishes and congratulations, but providing advice for how Lieberman and Gore should emphasize the independency of the ticket.

In a recent interview with Jewish Insider, Lieberman reflected on the culmination of circumstances leading to his addition to the ticket. “Every choice of a running mate is reflective of where the presidential candidate is and where that candidate thinks the country is at a given moment,” he said.

But when the papers came out the following morning, it was Lieberman’s faith, not political positions, that captured the headlines.

Two decades later, Lieberman continues to praise Gore’s boldness in choosing a Jewish candidate, adding, “I don’t know if any presidential nominee would have had the courage to do it 20 years, let alone 50 years, before.”

When Gore and Lieberman met for dinner in Nashville following the announcement, the vice president admitted he reached out to his friends in the Jewish community seeking their advice on choosing a Jewish running mate. According to Lieberman, all of them counseled caution, afraid of any backlash. But when Gore asked for advice from fellow Christians, they unhesitantly approved the choice. 

“Obviously the Jewish ambivalence or anxiety comes from Jewish history,” Lieberman said. “It’s really a marvelous story, and very hopeful because the Christian confidence says that — this being a majority Christian country — this place was different. It wasn’t like other places and other times.” 

Of course, the choice of Lieberman came with a caveat unusual for politicians. He was not only Jewish, but observantly so. From the outset, Lieberman let it be known that his religious practices would remain an unbreachable commitment.

Former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman speaks at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC on March 24, 2019.

But in the formulaic microcosm that is a presidential campaign, this caused immediate disruption to the habits of the scheduling and advance staff who suddenly needed to learn the laws of kashrut and requirements of Shabbat.

“I’ve never seen more cellophane everywhere,” Tom Nides, who served as the vice presidential campaign manager and who travelled alongside Lieberman for the length of the campaign, laughingly recalled in a recent conversation with JI. “Every hotel room was covered with cellophane. I think people got a little carried away with it.”

Nides, who recalled Lieberman joking about his 24/6 commitment to the campaign, maintains that the Connecticut senator’s religiosity affected little more than logistics and planning. 

Meanwhile, the Jewish community immediately embraced Lieberman’s candidacy, devouring the weekly coverage of Lieberman’s choice of congregation to join for Shabbat or mentions of fast days on national television.  

“He made being a religious Jew not unusual” to the rest of the country, said Nides. “I think it was a broken barrier. It looks like you can be an observant Jew and run for president. You don’t have to work on Saturdays to run for president. And I think that itself was a barrier that I think was really important for people to understand.”

On the stump, Lieberman suffused his remarks with biblical mentions and, as he describes it, frequent “hoshannahs.” According to Matea Gold, who covered the Lieberman campaign for the Los Angeles Times, Lieberman’s “most often refrain to audiences was, ‘Is America a great country or what?’” Gold recalled that “he would frequently throw around Yiddish phrases, invoke God and would say that Al Gore had yiddishe neshamah, or Jewish soul.”

After a speech in Detroit in which he quoted George Washington’s farewell address to “with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion,” Lieberman was met backstage by a — in his description — “furious” Nides, concerned the speech might cause unpopular controversy. To Lieberman’s delight, after hearing the thunderous applause, Nides relented.

Still, according to Nides, Lieberman’s faith was never a campaign theme. “He ran as Al Gore’s vice president on principles. He was proud to be the first Jew. He was proud of his religion, his beliefs. He was proud of his family. But it wasn’t like that was the defining issue of Joe Lieberman.”

Even still, Lieberman’s Jewish references left an indelible mark. “The big song that summer was, ‘Who Let the Dogs Out?’ and for some reason, the advance staff would blare that anthem as he took the stage — an odd choice for an observant Jew, to be sure, but one that gave his events the feeling of a pep rally mixed with a Shabbat sermon,” recalled Gold.

But Lieberman’s expressions of faith were not universally applauded in the Jewish community. A few weeks after joining the campaign trail, Lieberman faced criticism from the Anti-Defamation League for openly professing his faith at campaign events. In an August 29 statement, the ADL called Lieberman’s statements “contrary to the American ideal,” concluding “There is a point at which an emphasis on religion in a political campaign becomes inappropriate and even unsettling in a diverse society such as ours.”

Despite that critique, Lieberman and Nides pushed on, focusing on polling data that showed Bush leading Gore in the ‘shares our values’ category. In October, they scheduled a speech on faith at Notre Dame University, which received praise in the press.

Former U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman smiles during a 2013 interview in his office in Manhattan.

In the first post-impeachment election, the authenticity displayed by Lieberman’s commitment to his values proved popular. 

“For him, Jewish heritage was not the soft stuff of culture, but was a deep well of wisdom to help him formulate the right way to lead,” explained Michael Granoff, a supporter and friend who spent significant time on the trail with Lieberman during the 2000 campaign.

Lieberman’s faith was not just for show. Those who surrounded him on the trail — including staffers to the media, who Gold says he endearingly called nuchschleppers — found him courteous, gracious, and pleasant.

“Even in the darkest days — and there were plenty of them, especially during the recount — he couldn’t have been more solicitous, more charming and decent to people,” Nides recalled. 

Granoff readily concurred. “If the Jewish people arranged to put their best foot forward with the first of them to run in a national campaign,” he said, “they could not have invented someone more well-suited to the task than Senator Lieberman.”

***

In the “political time” schema described by scholar Stephen Skowronek, the Gore-Lieberman campaign occurred during a period of relative ideological stability of the Reagan era, now likely to have ended with the disjunctive Trump presidency. Lieberman’s candidacy is in many respects a perfect emblem of that period, when norms and political extremes were far more restrained.

Gore’s choice of a political moderate as a running mate appears antiquated by 2020 standards. The choice of a Lieberman-esque vice presidential candidate would appear bold for the opposite reasons it did in 2000.

Lieberman’s legacy was complicated six years after his vice presidential run, when he left the Democratic Party following his Senate primary loss. In 2008, Lieberman endorsed his longtime friend and Republican senator John McCain in the presidential election, further cementing a dramatic move away from the Democratic Party. The endorsement unsettled many former allies, including many Gore-Lieberman campaign alumni.

“What happened after the Senate race and how he morphed a little bit, I didn’t support that,” Nides admitted. “He’s still a decent, wonderful human being, but I don’t support him, going to the Republican convention and endorsing John McCain.”

Granoff, who remains close to Lieberman, defended the former senator. “There is no question that Joe’s support for the 2003 Iraq war, the events surrounding his 2006 reelection to the Senate, and his endorsement of his friend John McCain’s 2008 campaign severely diminished his standing in the eyes of many,” he said. “It was not Joe who changed — it was them.”

Regardless of whether the change lies with Lieberman, the party, or a combination, Gore’s choice in 2000 appears in stark contrast to Joe Biden’s expected choice of a running mate positioned to his left.

In particular, the choice of a Jewish running mate appears distinctly disjointed in an era of rising antisemitism, including towards political candidates.

Reflecting on the 2000 campaign, neither Lieberman, nor his top aides could recall a single incident of antisemitism. 

“There is no way I would have imagined during the euphoria of that moment that 20 years later we would look upon an America where so many of the virtues of that experience are nearly unimaginable,” Granoff now says.

Lieberman remained more circumspect. When asked whether another Jewish candidate could emerge in this era he responded in the affirmative, before hastening to reiterate the “unique set of circumstances” that led to his pick. “You know what they say, Baruch Hashem. God works in mysterious and wonderful ways.”

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered daily in a must-read newsletter.