Listening to former Sen. Joe Lieberman and former Obama administration Treasury Secretary Jack Lew talk the other night at Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center about the need for compromise, civility, compassion and integrity in Washington, I had the strong feeling that many of the 600 attendees were thinking, as I was, that we’ve come a long way from the days of politicians putting country over party.
The evening, a partnership of The Jewish Week and the Center, was titled “The State of Our Union Today” and found both Lew and Lieberman expressing concern that “the coarsening of discourse” in Washington and the spread of disrespect is “threatening democracy,” as Lew put it, adding: “I worry about that.”
“What we’re seeing now,” he said in light of the longest-ever government shutdown, is “unprecedented chaos.”
Writer Abigail Pogrebin skillfully moderated the 75-minute program.
Lieberman, who ran for vice president in 2000 with Democrat Al Gore and (we only recently learned) was Republican John McCain’s first choice as a running mate in 2008, was a bit less direct in his criticism of President Trump. He said both Democrats and Republicans have shown stubbornness over the shutdown, now in its fifth week, and he called for serious negotiations to settle the political standoff, citing his mentor, the late Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.), in lauding “the integrity of compromise” as “an imperative” in government. And he referenced the Torah in asserting that “the greater the authority a person has, the greater the responsibility” to act as a moral leader.
Lieberman noted that Moses was prevented from leading the Israelites to the Promised Land because he disobeyed God’s decision — he hit the rock rather than speak to it to bring water to the people in the desert — and King Saul lost his kingship for disobeying the Prophet Samuel.
Lieberman criticized the way President Trump “conducts himself,” adding that “he is the result of value trends in our society; he has deepened those problems.”
“The system is trying to right itself,” he said, noting that the courts have prevented some of Trump’s efforts to extend his authority.
During the discussion, Lieberman and Lew were mostly in agreement — with the issue of the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem an exception — and offered insights into how they remained loyal to both public service and traditional Jewish observance. The result was several charming “back stories” about their experiences and a strong impression that, whatever you think of their politics, their modesty and quiet conviction in keeping the faith while serving the country brought honor to the Jewish community.
Serving The People
Both men made history — American and Jewish. Lieberman served in the U.S. Senate for 24 years after 16 years in Connecticut state government and was the first Jew to run on the presidential ticket of a major party. Lew, who served as director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the Clinton and Obama administrations, was chief of staff and later treasury secretary under President Obama. He was the first observant Jew to have a cabinet position.
“The [Jewish] calendar was a challenge, not an obstacle,” Lew said, referring to the restrictions of work on Shabbat and the Jewish festivals. Both Clinton and Obama had “deep respect” for his religious principles, he said, and emphasized that if he could get the work done, it was up to him to decide how and when to take time off.
Setting the record straight on “an apocryphal story” that Clinton had once ordered him to answer the phone on Shabbat, Lew explained that when he came home from synagogue one Shabbat, he heard a phone message from the president apologizing for an earlier message he had left. “He said to please disregard the first call; he was traveling overseas and didn’t realize it was still Shabbat.”
You can practice your faith openly, but don’t ever take it for granted.
Lew said his message to young observant Jews is, “You can practice your faith openly, but don’t ever take it for granted. And keep in mind that accommodations are being made for you,” and be sure to reciprocate for others.
When asked about bringing a sense of tikkun olam (the Jewish notion of repairing the world) to his work, Lew made a point of saying that a universal, “cross-cultural and not just Jewish” sense of morality should apply to civil servants. “If you ever forget it’s about people,” he said, “you shouldn’t be doing this work.”
He observed that the safety net in the U.S. “has been damaged but not destroyed” and he worries that “the most vulnerable” Americans “will pay the price” for actions taken by the Trump administration.
Lieberman said that in his four decades in elective office, “my religious observance never stood in the way of my political success.” When it came to conflicts over Shabbat or Jewish holidays, “I decided that I would fulfill my government responsibilities, but never” put political appearances over his observance. An example: once scheduled to make an acceptance speech at a political event in Connecticut on Shabbat, he pre-recorded it for delivery. And it has been reported that he sometimes walked to Congress for key votes on Shabbat.
Lieberman said he did not experience direct anti-Semitism during his vice-presidential run in 2000, and he shared with the audience that when he was selected for the slot, Al Gore told him he had polled several Jewish and Christian advisors about the political risk of having an observant Jew as his running mate. Not surprisingly, the Jews expressed anxiety while the Christians said most people would admire a candidate committed to his religion.
“And he [Gore] added that there were far more Christians than Jews out there,” Lieberman said with a smile. “And we did get 544,000 more votes” than Bush-Cheney.
The audience applauded enthusiastically.
One of the most difficult decisions he made during his career, Lieberman said, was calling out Bill Clinton — whom he admired and supported — in a Senate speech during the Monica Lewinsky scandal for the president’s “failure of leadership.”
Though criticized by many of his colleagues, Lieberman said he felt it would be hypocritical not to speak out. He recalled that a few days after his speech, the president called him at home. “He said he agreed with everything I had said, that he had made some terrible mistakes, and we spoke for 45 minutes. It was remarkable.”
Lieberman backed Clinton when the impeachment vote was held in the Senate.
In the spring of 2017, after firing James Comey as FBI director, President Trump met with Lieberman about the post and announced that he was a leading candidate. Lieberman, who was torn about accepting, said he asked his close friend Sen. John McCain for advice and was encouraged to seize the opportunity to serve his country.
“I said to John, ‘You’re the last person I should have called about this,’” Lieberman recalled.
He said fate intervened when Trump chose Lieberman’s law partner, Marc Kasowitz, to represent him personally. Citing a potential conflict of interest, Lieberman took himself out of the running.
“Baruch HaShem,” he told the crowd.
Split Over Embassy Move
The one substantial point of disagreement between Lieberman and Lew during the program was the Trump administration’s move of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Lew said that while it is “a legal fiction to say Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel, the embassy move became a partisan issue and the long-term effect is bad for Israel,” in part because the Jewish state needs to be a bipartisan issue in Washington and because the move “reduced space for negotiations” with the Palestinians.
Lieberman, noting that “we finally have a disagreement,” countered that the embassy move was good for the U.S., and he expressed concern over “troubling trend lines” that show declining support for Israel among young Democrats. “We have to engage them,” he said.
(In recent days, Lieberman has found himself engaged in a battle of words with a new hero to many of those young Democrats, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — simply “AOC” in the media — the 29-year-old newly elected Democratic Socialist member of Congress from the Bronx and Queens. Lieberman has voiced his concern that her views — including large tax increases, support for socialist governments and criticism of Israel — are moving the party further left when it needs to claim the center. When Lieberman, 76, said Ocasio-Cortez does not represent the future of the party, she responded in a trenchant tweet: “New party, who dis?”
Does his call for across-the-aisle compromise and negotiation apply within the Democratic Party as well? For now, the battle between mainstream and progressive Democrats for the heart of the party is in full swing.)
Lew noted that the Obama administration sometimes pushed back on Israel when it had a different view on how to provide long-term security regarding issues such as Iran and settlements. He said both Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have to take responsibility for their troubled relationship.
“We made mistakes,” he said. “All policy makers make mistakes. But we invested record levels in defense and intelligence cooperation, we developed the only weapon that could address the nuclear threat from Iran, and we never undermined Israel’s security.”
At evening’s end, moderator Pogrebin thanked Lieberman and Lew for “showing us what civility looks like.”
No further explanation was necessary.