In Praise Of Public Lifeby Joseph I. Lieberman
Americans have always been suspicious of government and have misunderstood and mistrusted those in public life. This
In a vigorous defense of public life, Senator Joseph Lieberman, one of the most articulate and respected of our politicians, defines the duty, the honor and the privilege of public life in the face of Americans' perennial cynicism about it.
Americans have always been suspicious of government and have misunderstood and mistrusted those in public life. This attitude is even more prevalent as the boundaries that once separated public and private have fallen. Lieberman argues that some of the public's mistrust is based on a misconception of what public life is and why we need it. He then describes that life as he has lived it over the last three decades -- with all its purpose, privileges, pressures and pleasures.
Drawing widely from his own experience as a politician and his pride in public service, Lieberman makes a passionate, hopeful argument for the value of public life -- its place and necessity in our democracy and our need for more Americans to embrace it if we are to sustain our self-government.
Lieberman asks fundamental questions about what standards of behavior should be expected of politicians in the sharply partisan, big-money, search-and-destroy atmosphere of politics today. Who should set these standards? Is there room for a public figure to "be human," to "make mistakes"? Is there a line beyond which the personal behavior of a public official is nobody's business? Do citizens have an obligation to understand and determine the responsibilities of public life?
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There are times, now and then, when my mother will read something critical about me in the newspapers, or she'll hear the fatigue in my voice during an evening phone conversation from my home in Washington to hers in Connecticut. "Sweetheart," she'll say, in that voice I've heard all my life, "do you really need this?"
I laugh and answer, "Yes, Mom, I really do need this. I love it."
Of course, my mother knows what my answer will be, and I know she is proud of it. But her question makes a good point. There's a lot you have to learn to live with if you are going to hold elected office and live a public life in America today. Privacy, for example, is difficult to maintain, for you and your family. Criticism, when you receive it (and you can count on receiving it, from political adversaries, if not from the man on the street or from the media), is sometimes searing, frequently personal and almost always public. The media -- newspapers, television, radio -- shadow public officials' every move, analyzing their words and deeds, scrutinizing their intentions, second-guessing their decisions and questioning their intelligence, not to mention their integrity. In this age of around-the-clock live cable television news, radio and the Internet, those judgments are instantly and constantly transmitted, day in and day out, to tens of millions of viewers, listeners and readers, often without adhering to the traditional journalistic standards of accuracy and reliability.
It's hard to imagine a career -- other than professional athletics or entertainment -- where one's job performance is as visible, as studied and as magnified as a politician's. Like an athlete and an entertainer, an elected official today must face questions not only about how he is doing his job but how he is living his life -- and how he has lived his life. Besides being expected to account for almost any aspect of his present existence, he may well be asked to explain things he did years or even decades ago, long before he entered public life. Unlike an athlete and an entertainer, whose wayward behavior -- past or present -- can often embellish a career, a politician's words and deeds are typically held to the highest of standards, and he is, in the most acutely direct sense, answerable for those actions -- answerable to the public. They are the people who hired him. They are the people who can fire him. And they are also the people to whom he must constantly turn for not only approval but also tangible support.
If you are going to live the life of a politician, you have to learn to ask people for support -- political and financial. That is not always easy or comfortable. You have to ask them as well for their votes. And you have to be aware that they might want something in return that you may not be able to give them, which they may not understand, and which they may therefore resent.
As a politician, you will also have to endure the disdain of those who consider your profession little more than bartering political favors for money and votes. You may well be sullied by the fight for election, drawn into the kind of negative campaigning and mudslinging that leaves both winners and losers dirtied and degraded in the public eye. Upon entering office, you will step into yet another arena that has turned uglier than ever before, this one infected with the partisan infighting of political parties that are polarized today to a degree unequaled in our nation's recent history.
So why in the world would anyone in his or her right mind choose such a life?
Well, I'm afraid fewer and fewer people are choosing it. This is bad for our democracy, and it is also the reason I am writing this book.
I had lunch not long ago with a group of interns in my Senate office. I try to do this each summer, at the end of these students' time with us, as a way of thanking them and saying goodbye before they head back to their colleges. This particular group came from a broad mix of campuses, including UCLA, the University of Virginia, Trinity College, the College of William and Mary, and my alma mater, Yale. Toward the end of the meal, I asked how many of them were thinking about pursuing a career in public life after graduation. Most were, which was not surprising. They probably wouldn't have spent their summer on Capitol Hill if they weren't. But when I went further and asked how many of their friends and classmates were considering a career in politics, they said not many, if any. I asked why.
"They think," said one, "that politics is just a lot of noise and not much is accomplished."
"It's too partisan," said another. "And too nasty. And politicians don't have any privacy."
"Too often," said a third, "it seems like politicians spend most of their time raising money -- big money."
Meanness. Big money. Partisanship.
Not much accomplished.
The reasons these students ticked off for their classmates' aversion mirror the disdain most of the nation feels right now for politics and for politicians.
That is not surprising when you think about the sordid spectacle that culminated in the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, the partisan bickering and bloodletting unleashed throughout that national crisis, the aura of zealous pursuit infecting the independent counsel's investigation, the media's seemingly unquenchable thirst for scandal, the ascent of a character like Larry Flynt as a moral arbiter and influence on this momentous process. In the wake of such a gaudy and demeaning saga at what is supposed to be the highest, most dignified level of our society, is it any wonder that Americans by the millions simply turned away in disappointment and disgust?
Voter turnout for the November 1998 elections, which followed the President's nationally televised "confession" of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and the subsequent beginning of the impeachment proceedings in the House, was 36 percent -- the lowest for any midterm election since 1942. Think about that number. For every eligible American who voted, there were two who did not.
That disheartening statistic tells us that fewer Americans than ever can muster enough trust in their government to conclude that it is worth voting. This cynicism has infected the American people to the point where a disturbingly large number of them no longer believe that public life in our democracy -- the very core of our system of representative government -- is worthy of their respect, let alone their involvement. In a survey taken in 1964, three out of four Americans said they believed in their government and trusted their elected leaders. A similar survey taken last year found that figure had dropped to one in four.
One in four.
Public confidence did not plummet overnight. It did not begin with Bill Clinton. Politicians and government have endured suspicion and a certain degree of scorn since the birth of this nation. This skepticism on the part of the American public is a grand tradition, as deeply rooted in our society as the spirit of freedom and independence and limited government. What is new, however, is the degree to which that suspicion and scorn have grown in the past thirty years. These three decades have seen an unprecedented parade of betrayals of the public's trust, from the deception that lay behind the Vietnam War, to the shock of the Watergate scandal, to Iran-Contra and the partisan political and cultural warfare that erupted in the 1980s, to the personal attacks on public figures like Judge Robert Bork, Speaker Jim Wright and Justice Clarence Thomas, to the unseemly revelations of campaign finance wrongdoing in 1996, and on through the earthshaking impeachment experience of 1998 and 1999.
That's an awful beating for a political system to take over the course of just one generation. And it has brought us to a low point in the American people's relationship with their government. They are experiencing a real crisis of confidence not just in politicians but in the value of public life in our democracy, which troubles me deeply because I've lived that life for those same past thirty years -- virtually my entire adulthood -- and I think it deserves better. I've experienced its challenges and satisfactions, and I've felt its pitfalls and pressures. I know the strains it can put on a personal life -- on a marriage and a family. I've felt the probing eye of the media push further and further into public officials' offices and homes. I've seen the role of money in political campaigns grow more uncontrollable and corrosive year after year. I've felt the viciousness of partisanship infect the process of politics to the point where reasonable collaboration becomes almost impossible. I've watched good men go bad, their judgment clouded by zealotry and ideological obligation, by ego and ambition, by the dark side of power and prestige, or simply and sadly by desires that become needs.
The American people have watched these things as well. Every day, on the pages of hundreds of newspapers and magazines, they read ringside accounts of the latest political battle, or corruption, or scandal. Every day they watch the constant flow of television news broadcasts. They listen to analysts on radio talk shows dissect and diagnose the political news of the day with each other, with the audience and with the politicians themselves. They scour the Internet. And for a firsthand look at government doing its business, they watch C-SPAN.
With such a wealth of access and input, it's easy to feel that we've got more than enough information about public life and those who are living it to make conclusive judgments about the quality, the value and even the future of that life.
But, with all that Americans are shown of public life through the media, there is more that they do not see that is good and hopeful. There are aspects of life in goverment that are not conveyed by today's cameras and tape recorders that are fascinating, encouraging and even enjoyable. Without understanding these fuller dimensions of this life, it is hard to honestly and accurately judge it, or to prescribe solutions for what ails it. Communicating that more complete picture of public life is exactly what I want to do in this book.
Last year a group called the Council for Excellence in Government sponsored a poll that found that two out of three Americans feel "disconnected" from their government, that more than half our society does not believe the government is any longer "of, by and for the people," and that the segment of our society that feels most estranged from government is the young, ages eighteen to thirty-four.
This is what those interns were trying to tell me at lunch, and this is what chills me most -- the prospect of the best of the next generation turning their backs on politics and public life. It is always, of course, the young upon whom the future direction of our society depends, and right now that generation is abandoning its government.
Not that they don't care about society. In fact, while those who are now coming of age in America may feel disconnected from government, they do feel a strong connection to their community and its needs, stronger in some ways than the generations that preceded them in the 1970s and 1980s. While they may be shunning political careers, they are turning in growing numbers toward public service -- community groups, advocacy groups -- and volunteer work. A recent national study of college freshmen shows that more students are choosing schoolteaching as a career than at any time in the past quarter century. Why? Certainly not for ego or pay. No, the reason cited repeatedly by the students in this survey was their desire to "make a difference."
Of course, we should celebrate the fact that these young people are choosing to turn their talent, vision and hope not toward just themselves -- as seemed to be prevalent in the '80s -- but toward one another, toward their community, toward those in need.
But it also brings me back to the question I asked at the beginning: Why in the world would anyone, including the next generation, choose to live the public life of a politician today? Why, to repeat my mother's question, do I really need this?
The answer, I would suggest, is the same one those future teachers gave: to make a difference. For all that is wrong with our system of government, and there is much that needs repair, it remains a place where one can truly and uniquely make a difference, where one can help improve our country and even, occasionally, the world.
We need to convince more young people who want to make a difference to enter public life. For the American experiment in self-government to remain vital, we need more people to serve in that government and to live public lives. If we didn't have politicians, we would have to invent them. We can turn our backs and abandon them in disgust, thereby ensuring that the government does indeed belong to the privileged and powerful few. Or we can conclude that public life is a worthy pursuit, that it can be an honorable, constructive, satisfying, enjoyable career, deserving of the best among us.
We need to nurture this belief, especially in the generation now coming of age. We need to restore the trust and faith that have been so badly damaged. If this sounds as if I'm talking about a personal or even a marital relationship, it should. Trust is the foundation of any relationship, and the first step toward repairing the people's damaged trust in their government is to establish a foundation of clarity, honesty and understanding.
It is toward that end that I want to share some of what I've come to know and understand about public life over the course of my own career. I'd like to give a sense of what it looks and feels like, from the inside, and why I'm so glad I chose it. This book is not an autobiography. But it is personal, because I want to illustrate through my own experiences the nature, complexities, possibilities and satisfactions of public life. I will describe how my public life has affected my private life and vice versa, and ask what lines can be drawn between the two.
I'm still living that life, still learning, still trying to figure out how to deal with and repair the problems that persist. I will take a look at some of those problems in the pages that follow. I will also describe what I believe is right and good about this life, which, in my opinion, far outweighs the bad, because this is a book with a point of view. I write in praise of public life for all who care about the future of our democracy.
In 1976, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Jimmy Carter came up with a wonderful one-line insight about the relationship between the public and its elected leadership: The American people, he said, deserve a government as good as they are.
Nearly a quarter century later, the American people still deserve as much, and they still do not have it. But my life in politics tells me they are closer to it than they think.
I hope, after reading these pages, that you will agree and decide to do something yourself to make it even better.
Copyright © 2000 by Joseph I. Lieberman
Chapter Three: Mounting a First Campaign
Last summer, early in his campaign for this year's Democratic Party presidential nomination, Bill Bradley wondered aloud to a reporter about the enmity that seems to inevitably arise between candidates in a political race. "The question is," asked Bradley, "can you have a politics that becomes a little bit like the McGwire-Sosa home-run contest last year? One of them won the title, but both of them won in terms of what the competition produced for the baseball fans. Why can't politics be like that?"
Well, sometimes it can and is, but more often it is not, because unlike the home-run contest, where both Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were heralded as winners and heroes, in a political campaign there is only one winner. Even where both candidates are honorable, thoughtful and not nasty by nature, there is a lot on the line, and eventually there are going to be people on both sides who will push their candidate to distinguish himself or herself from the other candidate, to give people a clear reason to vote for him or her and not the other. This is when a campaign runs the risk of slipping from appropriate discussion, debate and even attack centered around facts, values and ideas to inappropriate misstatements, personal assaults and innuendoes based on distortions and fictions.
Unfortunately the latter has become the norm in American political campaigning at all levels of government. And the American public -- those not enlisted in the partisan armies that divide current political battlefields -- has made it clear that they're sick and tired of it. To describe the effect of all this negative campaigning, I make the analogy of Kmart launching an all-out advertising offensive against Wal-Mart, and Wal-Mart doing the same in return. The net effect would be that fewer people would shop at either place. They might decide not to shop at all, or they might just go over to JCPenney. This is where Ross Perot and, most recently, Jesse Ventura have found much of their support -- as an alternative to "politics as usual," which unfortunately, in the campaign phase, is too often negative politics.
Again, there is nothing new about this. For most of our history, candidates have naturally tried to distinguish themselves from their opponents, usually by criticizing them. And third parties have regularly appeared, but usually as part of a political realignment around a major societal change. But what is happening today seems different, in part because negative campaigning has the added reach and sharp edge of modern television marketing, but also because the third-party response seems less like Lincoln's Republican Party and Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party and more a reflection of Henry David Thoreau's hostility to the entire process of popular elections, which he described as "a sort of gaming, like chequers or backgammon." Third parties today seem to be reactions against the politics of the two major parties rather than coalitions formed to advance an idea or cause.
That brings me back to the question Bill Bradley was asking, and it is a perennial one: whether it is possible for political candidates to stay completely focused on ideas and solutions, to run a "positive" campaign and to compete without the element of attack, all of which would probably make today's third parties less attractive. It is possible, but it isn't easy. I'm afraid, based on my own experience, that you cannot pretend your opponent, along with his platform of policies, does not exist -- unless, of course, you are confident you are so far ahead of him that you can ignore him, and that can be risky, as my opponent, the incumbent U.S. senator, found out in 1988. In most campaigns, you are going to have to compare his or her platform to yours. You are going to have to compare him or her to you. If you are a challenger, you are, as a political consultant once succinctly told me, going to have to convince the voters to "fire him and hire you."
I had my first personal experience with the reality of political campaigning in 1970, when I mounted a campaign for a seat in the Connecticut state senate.
I was three years out of law school. I had taken a job with the New Haven law firm Wiggin and Dana, become active in the local political and Jewish communities, chaired a statewide Citizens for Kennedy group (which at the age of twenty-six drew some attention) during Bobby Kennedy's tragically brief presidential campaign in 1968, become part of a statewide Democratic coalition built on the remnants of Kennedy's and Eugene McCarthy's supporters after Nixon was elected president that fall, done some lobbying in the Connecticut legislature for several of our law firm's clients, including the state hospital association, and kept my eyes open for the best opportunity to make my own entry into political office.
That opportunity emerged in the form of a state senate seat in New Haven then held by Ed Marcus, the Democratic majority leader of the state senate, a powerful, smart and feared politician. When he announced in late 1969 that he was going to make a run for the U.S. Senate the next year, he made it clear that if he didn't get that nomination he was going to come back for his state legislative seat. There were plenty of people in line to replace Marcus in the state senate, but none of them tried. Either they did not want to incur his wrath or they did not think he was beatable.
A challenger rarely defeats an incumbent solely on the challenger's own merits. The incumbent has to have vulnerabilities. Unless there is some overriding context or influence that sweeps an incumbent out of office on a wave not of his making (such as the Republican "revolution" of 1994), he really ought to get reelected, if he is doing his job, and if he has not made too many enemies in the process.
Ed Marcus had rankled feelings in the state Democratic Party hierarchy, squaring off over the years against the governor and other party leaders. Political independence is generally an asset as far as I'm concerned, but Marcus's independence bruised some people. The result was that by 1970 the most powerful Connecticut Democrats, including Senator Abe Ribicoff, Governor John Dempsey and party chairman John Bailey, were estranged from Ed Marcus. More locally, I sensed that as Marcus's statewide power and responsibility had grown, a gap had developed between him and a lot of the people in his state senate district. In fact, the demographics of the district were changing under him. While I was in Hartford lobbying for my law firm, I had also become excited about the prospects for making a difference in the state legislature. The late 1960s was a time when state governments in America were becoming more significant and more professional, with new state initiatives in areas of public concern like urban redevelopment, civil rights and environmental protection.
Besides, unlike the politicians who were ahead of me in line to replace Marcus but were afraid to lose the positions they had, I had nothing to protect. I was only twenty-seven, with a career that was just beginning. Maybe because I was twenty-seven I never thought much about what would have happened to that career if Marcus had won and been in a position to get even. But I can say that throughout my public life -- in that 1970 race, in 1982 when I ran for state attorney general and in my 1988 U.S. Senate campaign -- the biggest strides forward have come when I've taken the biggest risks. I was a complete long shot against Ed Marcus, but I thought I could do a better job for the district and I wanted to get my political career moving, so I decided to run.
It was the first time I had to choose a theme for a campaign, the reason people should vote for me. Our choice, unaided by polls or consultants, was that I would be a "Strong New Voice for a Better New Haven," which sounds to me today a lot like the simple, traditional call "It's time for a change."
Because of political and community work I'd done over the preceding few years in New Haven, I had a local base of support -- in the Jewish community, in the black community and at Yale -- that helped me start organizing. We began raising money, but fund-raising in 1970 was not what it is today, especially for a state senate campaign. Television, which dominates virtually every aspect of campaigning today at almost all levels of politics and which is exorbitantly costly, was not a factor for us. Any television exposure we got came from occasional news coverage, not from advertising. We spent a little bit on radio ads toward the end of the campaign, but most of our advertising that year was done in newspapers and on billboards, which today seem to have gone out of fashion. Professional media consultants now will tell you that "static" ads -- in newspapers, on billboards, on the sides of buses (which are not totally static) -- don't do much more than tell people your name. If you're unknown, they say, such ads can be useful in terms of raising your recognition and introducing you to the public, but other than that, advertising money is much better spent on the electronic media -- television, radio and, most recently, the newly emerging political medium of the Internet -- which communicate a message.
Our total budget for that 1970 campaign was $30,000, the most ever raised at that time by a state senate challenger, but a long way from the $190,000 that one Connecticut state senator spent to get elected in 1998 or the $4.9 million I raised for my 1994 U.S. Senate campaign, which is nothing compared to the $39.9 million Michael Huffington spent during his 1994 campaign for a Senate seat in California, or the $57.7 million George W. Bush raised in just nine months last year. These are astounding numbers, almost incomprehensible. It's one measure of how drastically politics has changed in the last thirty years.
Most of our money in that 1970 race was spent on what is typically called retail politics -- literally going door-to-door to connect with the voters. Some presidential candidates still do this for the caucuses and primaries in places like Iowa and New Hampshire. The number of people who turn out in those elections is so relatively small that going door-to-door can actually make a difference, both with the people you meet face-to-face and with the people they talk to after meeting you, as it did for me in 1970.
The New Haven state senate district that year had about 30,000 voters, and roughly 7,000 of those people would cast ballots in the Democratic primary election, which, in an area as overwhelmingly Democratic as New Haven at that time, was tantamount to the general election itself.
I personally visited more than 3,000 homes or apartments in my 1970 state senate campaign. We had an army of young, energetic campaign volunteers -- a children's crusade, really -- who fanned out into the community day after day for me or with me. Among them was a very personable and memorable Yale Law student from Arkansas named Bill Clinton. We didn't have the machinery, the veteran political organization, that Ed Marcus had, but I did have the personal endorsement of New Haven's popular former mayor Dick Lee, who had adopted me in a way, and of Abe Ribicoff, who had developed into my mentor by then. Both of them had had conflicts with Marcus. If I had been running against almost anyone else, Ribicoff probably would not have gotten involved because U.S. senators normally stay out of state or local intraparty struggles. Although I am a real skeptic about the impact on voters of one politician endorsing another, when Ribicoff and Lee stepped into this one, it drew a lot of attention and gave me the credibility I didn't have on my own. People began to believe that this might actually become a contest.
That campaign developed into a tough struggle, which brings me back to the subject of attack politics and negative campaigning. I challenged Ed Marcus on a number of issues, votes and acts in his career. He came back at me in the same direct way. It was a rough fight, but it was fair in the sense that it was based on facts, and that's the crucial difference, I believe, between appropriately making the case for your election and inappropriately indulging in negative, attack campaigning. If the content of your attack is factual, relevant and fair, then you've done your job and it's up to the voters to decide. If, on the other hand, your facts aren't right, or they are manipulated to the point of untruth, if your approach is to pull down your opponent in any way possible, even if it requires going into his purely personal life, then you've gone over the line into negative, attack campaigning.
On the night of the primary election, with all but one ward reporting, I was behind Marcus by ten votes. The remaining ward was inhabited mostly by Yale students and African-Americans and was coordinated for me by my friend Lanny Davis, then a law student, now a prominent Washington lawyer. Lanny called us excitedly at headquarters to say he thought we had won the ward handily but one of the opposition ward workers had intentionally jammed the voting machines. We immediately dispatched a phalanx of young lawyers and called for help from election officials. They opened the machines and I carried that ward by 250 votes, giving me a victory by 240 or roughly 4 percent of the total votes cast.
One of the many lessons John Bailey taught me was: "In politics, you should always work to convince your opponents in the last election to become your supporters in the next election." That took a while for Ed Marcus and me, but eventually the bad memories faded. In 1988, he actively supported me for the U.S. Senate, and later became Democratic state chairman of Connecticut, where he and I have worked very well together.
In 1970, I had seen an opportunity and taken it. That state senate district was ready for a change. The campaign was enormously exciting but it wasn't easy or without risk. I had challenged a very strong and able incumbent and won, because I was able to present myself as a candidate of change with new ideas and because I received wonderful support from a large corps of volunteers, most of them young. We had a few big-name endorsements, but my campaign organization was otherwise an army of amateurs. For me, American democracy had lived up to its promise of openness in Connecticut's tenth state senatorial district. The local machine had been defeated. I hope the story of this first campaign of my career encourages you, the reader, to see how outsiders can become insiders in our political system with a lot of hard work and a little luck. It certainly encouraged me to be optimistic as I prepared to go to Hartford full of ideas about how to use my newly won office to get some things done for my city and state.
Copyright © 2000 by Joseph I. Lieberman
Chapter Seven: The Life
After my upset election to the Senate, I was inundated with congratulations, advice and new friends. But perhaps the best advice I received came from an old friend, Archbishop John Whalen of the Catholic Diocese of Hartford. Before going to Washington, I made private visits to three religious leaders who meant a lot to me, to ask them for their prayers as I began this new chapter of my life: the Lubavitch rabbi Menachem Schneerson in Brooklyn, New York, who had long been an inspiration to me; the Reverend Ken Fellenbaum, an Evangelical minister, supporter and friend from Milford, Connecticut; and Archbishop Whalen at his residence in Hartford. The archbishop gave me one piece of advice I had not expected. "Leave time for solitude, Joe," he told me. "Make space for thinking and reading." I had no idea then how wise the archbishop's counsel was.
When I arrived in Washington as a newly elected senator, I attended a series of orientation seminars for incoming freshmen, including one in which Alan Simpson, then senator from Wyoming, spoke about the dangers of senatorial overload. He told us how he had arrived on Capitol Hill years before, an ardent newcomer just as we were. Every day his schedule was crammed from dawn to dark with meetings (committee meetings, meetings with staff, meetings with colleagues, meetings with constituents), with speeches to make (at breakfasts, lunches and dinners), with press interviews (from newspapers and magazines and radio and television), with receptions (at cocktail parties, social events, cultural performances). Every night he would trudge home with enough paperwork to break a packhorse's back, as he put it. Then he would rise the next morning to do it all over again. Eager, resolute, anxious to make his mark, he kept up this pace for about three months, he said, until he finally realized he was about to fall apart. At that point he called his staff together, sat them down and made an announcement. "Regarding my schedule," he told them, "I just want to remind you of one thing: If I die, you're all out of work."
This is a common syndrome in any profession: the new employee eager to prove to others and to himself how well he can do his job. There is nothing wrong with such zeal, but at some point you have to learn to draw lines, to make choices, to understand that you can't do it all, and shouldn't.
I understood Simpson's advice, I knew exactly what he meant...and I promptly proceeded to ignore it. Since it was the middle of the school year when I began my new job during January 1989, Hadassah stayed in Connecticut so Ethan -- then thirteen -- could finish eighth grade. Meanwhile I moved into a college friend's vacant apartment for six months and, having nothing but my work to do, I did exactly what Simpson had warned against. I worked myself to death. Beyond the necessary duties that took up almost my entire day, I accepted every invitation possible, attended every reception I could, made the optional almost a requirement, and was up until well past midnight each evening reading and studying the paperwork I'd lugged home. It didn't take me long to realize that this was not the most effective way to be a senator. First, like Simpson, I soon understood that at this rate I was going to kill myself. And secondly, when you are a politician in a city like Washington, there are always invitations, every night, to events and gatherings that can seem alluringly fascinating, occasionally glamorous and possibly important, and are actually often pleasant, and sometimes even worthwhile. But the trade-off for your own precious time and energy is a high price to pay, and you quickly learn to pick and choose these invitations carefully.
I'll never forget getting an invitation from Ted Stevens, the senator from Alaska, to attend a dinner he and his wife, Cathy, were hosting at their home in honor of Warren Rudman, the senator from New Hampshire. Rudman, whose office was fortunately right next to mine, became a mentor to me. He was a notorious recluse when it came to evening events. He never went out at night. "It's a waste of time," he told me once. "I can't take it. I go home and read books."
When I saw Stevens on the Senate floor the next day, I told him I'd gotten the invitation and that Hadassah and I would love to come. "But what's the occasion?" I asked him. "Is it Warren's birthday?"
"Oh, no, no," he said. "The dinner is in honor of Warren because he's agreed to come."
Ted Stevens's comment made me laugh, but it also made me think. In spite of the extremes to which Warren Rudman went to protect his private time, he was widely regarded as a superb senator, one of the best. That confirmed what I had learned during my madcap first six months in Washington, which is that a lot of what I was spending my time on did nothing to make me a better senator for my state or country. Besides, my wife and infant child had come to live in Washington with me, and I wanted to spend time with them.
When you're elected to Congress, you suddenly work in a place where you don't live, or to put it another way, you suddenly live in two places. "When you're a senator," one of my colleagues once glumly said to me, "home is where you're not." One of the first decisions you have to make is whether you are going to bring your family to Washington with you. I remember one of my Senate colleagues who had come to Washington married, and after a few years with his wife living in his home state, got divorced, advising me: "You don't appreciate it now, Joe," he said, "but this is where you work. You're going to spend as much as three-quarters of your time here, and if you leave your wife in Connecticut, it will just not be good for your marriage." He was right, and we decided that Hadassah and Hani, who was then barely a year old, would move to Washington in June 1989.
Another thing that surprised me when I first arrived in the capital was how many of my colleagues in the Senate do not own residences in their home states because they also want their families with them in Washington and can't afford to own two homes. The annual salary of a U.S. senator in 1989 was $89,500 -- not enough to maintain two mortgages. Today it is $141,300, a lot of money for most Americans, but by itself still not enough to easily pay for two homes, at least not when one of them is in as expensive a city as Washington. John Rowland, a former congressman and now governor of Connecticut, called me after the 1988 election and said, "Congratulations, you now live in two of the most expensive real estate markets in America at the same time." What some of my colleagues do once they are elected is sell their house in their home state and maintain their legal residence there with a family member or friend.
For me, this was a dilemma. First, my family and I were very attached to our home and neighbors in New Haven. They were our dearest friends. Some of them were members of our synagogue and Sabbath Bible-study group, and were with us at our times of greatest personal joy and sadness. Our Connecticut friends were friends before I became a senator and would be friends after. We didn't want to cut ourselves off from them or from the city of New Haven, which I had loved since I arrived at Yale in 1960. I was also politically sensitive about not having a house in Connecticut and opening myself to accusations by an opponent of "going Washington" and abandoning my roots. But that's what Hadassah and I might have been forced to do if it had not been for help from our family that enabled us to live in a townhouse in the Burleith section of Washington and still keep our home in New Haven.
After we married in 1983, Hadassah had for a time continued her career in health care consulting and public relations, commuting a few days a week to New York from our home in Connecticut. But that became difficult, so she began working part-time in New Haven. When we came to Washington, she wanted to work, and we needed the additional income. Having a full- or part-time job was a relative rarity for senators' wives a generation ago but is much more common today. The role of spouses in public life has changed over the past thirty years in much the same way the role of spouses in all walks of life has changed. Politically and independently active spouses such as Eleanor Roosevelt were an extreme exception until the 1970s. A wife's role -- and they were almost always wives, since the politicians were almost always men -- was to support and encourage her husband's career while taking care of her home and family. During the First World War a group of wives, calling themselves the Ladies of the Senate, began meeting once a week to roll bandages for the war effort and then have lunch together. When Hadassah arrived in Washington, this group was still meeting, but their number was smaller. Many of the wives -- and husbands (the group is now called Spouses of the Senate) -- didn't have the time. Most of them had jobs and careers of their own. Hadassah would try hard not to miss the weekly lunches of this group because she enjoyed the company and derived comfort and counsel from the only women in Washington who were living pretty much the same life she was.
When Hadassah began looking for a job in Washington, we both agreed to be careful about avoiding anything that might appear to be a conflict of interest. We both wanted her to pursue her own career as independently as possible from mine. But we found, as she began to interview for jobs, that prospective employers were more interested in entertaining or employing her as Senator Lieberman's wife than as an independent, capable, experienced candidate for a job. Others were worried about how much work she would miss when she returned to Connecticut with me. After several weeks of elegant lunch meetings with no offers she could accept, Hadassah told me, "At this rate, I'm going to get fat before I get a job."
She finally did find appropriate employment, first with the National Research Council, building private sector support for better math and science education, and then as a consultant with a public affairs firm that agreed to protect her from conflicts of interest. She worked only for nonprofit organizations and did no lobbying. In the last few years, as our daughter Hani, who is now eleven, has grown older, Hadassah has begun working part-time out of our home as a women's health care consultant, so we can all spend more time together.
This gets back to the warning Alan Simpson issued when I first came to Washington, and it's a challenge to anyone in any career. Balancing one's job and one's life is tremendously difficult. But it is also tremendously essential.
Once, Hadassah and I were talking about how being a senator might change a person, and she warned, "Remember, being a senator is just your job. It's not you." She was so right. Being a senator is a great job, a great honor and a great opportunity, but it is, after all, just my job. When a senator begins to think of himself only as "The Senator," he is on the road to trouble. Coming to Washington with children, particularly an infant, helped keep me from inhaling the intoxicating aura of the capital, as I know it does for all my colleagues who are parents. There is nothing like coming home and changing a baby's diaper to remind you that "being a senator is just your job." The presence of children in the house also creates a pull -- some might call it guilt -- that helps members of Congress go home and thereby avoid getting stretched thin by their work schedules.
When Hadassah heard that Hillary Clinton was thinking of running for the U.S. Senate from New York, she said, "I just don't understand why she'd want a job where she has to wait at the end of the day until the Senate majority leader tells her she can go home." That is the voice of a spouse who has kept dinner in the oven too many nights, waiting for my Senate colleagues to stop speaking and for the Senate leaders to agree there would be no more votes so we could go home. In fact, a lot of us try to live close enough to the Capitol that we can go home for dinner to see our families and still be able to rush back when the cloakroom staff calls to say a vote is about to occur.
Now add to this busy life in Washington the fact that it is not home. We live in Connecticut and want and need to be there, too, with our family, friends and constituents. Before air-conditioning (which enables Congress to stay in session during the torrid Washington summer) and airplanes (which enable us to leave the capital and return quickly), members of Congress would come to Washington in January, stay in session for several months and then go home for several months. No more. Today we are all in varying degrees of constant motion between Washington, our home states and, when we are in reelection cycle, other places around the country for campaign fund-raising. I am lucky because the planes make the relatively short trip to Connecticut or nearby New York airports very frequently and quickly. Many of my colleagues have to allot the better part of a day for westward travel.
When our daughter Hani was younger, our family would go home to New Haven two or even three weekends a month. Now, since she is in school in D.C. and has friends there, we don't want to pull her out too often, so we go together to New Haven for one weekend a month, as well as for the summer recess and holidays. I make the trip several other days a month by myself. And when we are all in Washington together, Hadassah and I try not to go out more than one night a week. Because we have three grown children, we know how quickly Hani's childhood will be over, and we don't want to miss it.
In the helter-skelter push and pull of Senate life, Hadassah and I have found that our religious observances provide very welcome relief, particularly the Sabbath, that weekly sanctuary between sunset on Friday and sundown on Saturday. This is the time when the worldly concerns of the rest of the week are put on hold so that we can focus on appreciating all that God has given us. It is a day apart, when my family and I are able to reconnect with one another and with our spiritual selves, to pray, to talk, to read, to rest or to just plain enjoy ourselves. It is a "time beyond time," as one rabbi called it. In fact, I usually don't wear a watch on the Sabbath. I treasure that time, twenty-four hours with no meetings, no telephone calls, no television, no radio, no traveling, no business of any sort. My Connecticut Senate colleague, Chris Dodd, once joked with me that he would consider converting to Judaism just for the weekends.
As I promised during my campaign for the Senate in 1988, when there are meetings or votes on the Sabbath that affect people's health, well-being or security, I have attended. For me, this is consistent with rabbinic opinions that have, for instance, instructed doctors that they must ignore specific prohibitions of the Sabbath (such as not using a phone, a car or electricity) to protect someone's health or life. That certainly makes sense since the purpose of the Sabbath is to honor and appreciate God's creation. How, then, could we allow technical rules of Sabbath observance to stop us from protecting God's greatest creation -- people?
In my eleven years in Washington, I have attended crisis meetings at the White House three or four times on Saturdays and the Senate has been in session twenty-five or thirty times on the Sabbath. My colleagues want to be with their families or constituents on Friday night and Saturday so, when we're at the Capitol, it is for something important, like the Gulf war debate, the federal budget crises of 1990 and 1995 or the impeachment trial of President Clinton. On those occasions I have tried hard to fulfill my responsibility to the public without violating the specific rules that have been established over the centuries to protect the Sabbath as a day of rest, and make it different. For example, if we are meeting on both Friday night and Saturday, I will stay at a hotel near the Capitol, usually with Hadassah and Hani to avoid driving a car. If we're meeting on only one of those days, I'll walk the four miles between our home and the Capitol. Particularly when these walks are at night, the Capitol police provide me with an escort, on foot and in an accompanying car, which has led me to wish my European immigrant grandmother, Baba, could see me.
My Senate colleagues, just like my Connecticut constituents, have been not just tolerant but very respectful of my religious observance, which I truly appreciate. On my very first Sabbath at the Capitol, in 1989, before I had the routine down, I was planning to sleep on a cot in the Senate gym until Al Gore insisted I stay at his parents' apartment across the street. When I see Al's wonderful mother, Pauline, she always calls me her "tenant." During the impeachment trial, my Senate colleague Slade Gorton of Washington graciously offered to host Hadassah, Hani and me in his Capitol Hill home. And a Sabbath in the Senate never passes without Barbara Mikulski of Maryland coming over to say, in pretty good Polish-American Yiddish, "Good Shabbos, Joey."
On every other day of the week, it is Jewish tradition to pray three times -- morning, afternoon and evening. The afternoon service is, for me, the most difficult to stop for because it is in the middle of the workday. That is also why it is most important. So I have put a small prayer book next to the phone on the desk in my Senate office to remind me to pause and enjoy the perspective and calm that prayer offers. It definitely eases my way through the day.
For many members of Congress, religious observance also provides the most significant nonpolitical communities we belong to in Washington. The members of our churches and synagogues, like our neighbors and the parents of our children's schoolmates, become our second-home communities away from our communities in our home states or districts and make our lives in Washington richer than just a revolving door at the Capitol.
One of the worst consequences of the hectic lives senators lead is that we don't see enough of each other away from work. That is a shame because, believe it or not, senators are a very interesting and enjoyable group to spend time with. They are naturally affable, or they wouldn't be in politics. Sometimes people will ask me who are my best friends in the Senate. I always begin my answer with Chris Dodd, but after that it depends on which of the other senators our schedule has allowed or forced me to spend the most time with in recent weeks. In the old days, when members of Congress came to Washington for months at a time, they and their families would socialize with one another on weekends. Almost none of that happens now. Since the pace of work was slower then, members also took the time to gather at the end of the day for social drinks. That rarely happens anymore. In fact, there is very little drinking by members of the Senate today, alone or together. Since much of the bygone family and collegial socializing naturally crossed party lines, I am sure it helped avoid some of the rancorous and destructive partisanship that erupts too often today.
But there are still two good times I have found to get to know my colleagues personally. One is when we have traveled to foreign countries and spent extended time in close quarters together. The other is the weekly Senate prayer breakfast, at which about twenty or thirty current and former senators gather privately in a room at the Capitol each Wednesday morning with our chaplain, Lloyd Ogilvie, for prayer, reflection and conversation. This is the place and time in the Capitol that has felt most like home to me, when party affiliation is irrelevant and we speak of our faith, experience, priorities and concern for one another.
I remember once reading a description of Washington as America's temple of power, where senators are the high priests. That, of course, is greatly overstated, as the pace of our lives suggests, but the capital can be a very seductive and ego-inflating place. Senators are given much respect and deference, and run the risk of being misguided by this attention. Doors are opened for us; good seats at sporting and entertainment events and restaurants are easily obtained. Wealthy and famous people entertain us. Sometimes you've got to remind yourself who you are and why you wanted to be there. If you don't, the odds are that the media and your constituents eventually will.
I would guess that one of the most prevalent public misconceptions of the "seductive" life of members of Congress in Washington, particularly in the aftermath of the Lewinsky scandal, concerns their sexual excesses and infidelities. It may be happening more than I think, but I just haven't seen very much of it among my colleagues. That probably has a lot to do with the fact that the freedom politicians of earlier eras had to pursue private sexual relationships while the press looked the other way is now a thing of the distant past. Ask Gary Hart, or President Clinton.
As far as elected officials using their position of power to take advantage of women, that has changed too. First, women have thankfully become more self-protective and assertive than they were a generation ago; they simply won't stand for such behavior. And they have the law to support them. Any senator who might be thinking of chasing a staff member around his desk or planting a kiss on her lips need only be reminded of Bob Packwood to think again.
I am, of course, not saying that there is no sexual misconduct in Washington, but I would guess that the level of such activity is less among the group of men and women with whom I work on Capitol Hill than among a random group of 535 people in most other jobs in our society. People in public life are as full of frailties and vulnerabilities as anyone else, but their lives are lived today in a context of microscopic scrutiny that does not compare to the relative freedom and privacy they enjoyed a generation ago and that most other people in our society still enjoy. The fear of personal mortification, career destruction and emotional devastation for family and friends is a powerful deterrent for any public figure who is tempted to pursue an immoral relationship.
I have tried in this chapter to describe through my own experiences the impact that public life has on the private lives of people in politics, and how my family and I have worked hard to separate the two. It does take work, because public life is time-consuming and all-encompassing, and can be uniquely intrusive unless you protect your privacy and do not behave in a way that encourages media or political intrusion. But I remain convinced that the opportunities for making a difference that come with public life are worth the efforts that are necessary to protect the rest of your life.
Copyright © 2000 by Joseph I. Lieberman
Meet the Author
Joe Lieberman is a United States senator representing Connecticut. As the 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidate, he became the first Jew in American history to run for national office on a major-party ticket. With close ties and a wide fan base among Evangelical Christians, a popular speaker at churches and conferences, Lieberman counts top Evangelical leaders including Pastor John Hagee, Joyce Meyer, and Rick Warren as his friends and supporters.
Senator Lieberman lives in Stamford and Washington with his wife Hadassah. Together they are the proud parents of four children—Matthew, Rebecca, Ethan and Hana—four granddaughters, Tennessee, Willie, Eden and Madeleine, and a grandson, Yitzhak.
Michael D’Orso is the author of sixteen books, which include Oceana, Plundering Paradise, and The Cost of Courage. His work has been featured or reviewed in The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, and other publications.
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