Joe Lieberman

Al Gore’s choice of Senator Joseph Lieberman as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate is interesting on two scores, both summed up in the phrase, "observant Jew." We do not dismiss political calculation in the selection of Lieberman-his early and sharp criticism of Bill Clinton’s behavior will help distance Gore from the errant president, and his centrist, even conservative views, may appeal to independent voters. Even so, the symbolic importance of a Jewish running mate has been widely welcomed, and rightly.

Lieberman’s nomination has been compared to the ascendancy of John F. Kennedy in 1960. It is in some respects an apt comparison, but there is a significant contrast to be noted as well. Like Kennedy, the Lieberman choice is a sign that a religious group formerly discriminated against and regarded with suspicion and even contempt has joined the American mainstream. Of course, it is not the first, or necessarily the most important sign of Jewish presence in public life. Lieberman has been preceded by Supreme Court justices, cabinet members, and ambassadors who were or are Jewish, just as Kennedy’s co-religionists preceded him. That should not detract from the significance of the Lieberman choice. Insofar as a vice president is a president-in-waiting, Gore has offered American voters the chance for a breakthrough in potentially opening the presidential office to a Jew.

Even more intriguing, Lieberman is "an observant Jew." That is how he describes his own religious practice. One aide explained it this way: Lieberman "refers to himself as observant as opposed to Orthodox because he doesn’t follow the strict Orthodox code and doesn’t want to offend the Orthodox...." Still, his practice is impressive in seven-day-a-week America: he strictly observes the Sabbath; he prays in the prescribed manner, three times a day, and he and his wife follow Jewish dietary laws. Americans do not like to make a show of religious practice. And neither does Lieberman. But he does not hesitate to shape his public life by the light of his religious faith. His example of religious faith lived out unabashedly in contemporary political life is an inspiration to all.

The comparison to Kennedy breaks down when we remember that Kennedy was not an observant Catholic in the same sense that Lieberman is an observant Jew. Indeed, if John Kennedy had been as religious as Lieberman, Kennedy would have lost the 1960 election.

It was a different time, of course. Catholics with their history and numbers still had to prove themselves-true, even today-in ways that Jews do not. Jews are a very small minority in an overwhelmingly Christian country in which Catholics are the largest single group. Jews do not proselytize. Nor do people fear that Jews will impose their moral views on others. Perhaps even more important, in contrast to Catholics, Jewish community structure is decidedly nonhierarchical; there are few authoritative pronouncements. People still believe that Catholics march to the papal drummer. Moreover, an ecclesiastical pall hangs over Catholics vying for the highest office. It is summed up in George W. Bush’s decision to pass over Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania. Governor Ridge is a Catholic and he is prochoice. The Bush campaign feared that criticism from the Catholic hierarchy is all the voters would hear about Ridge and the campaign. That is tough for Catholic politicians and arguably for the country, since it seems likely that the politics of abortion will keep a Catholic off the presidential ticket for some time to come.

Published in the 2000-09-08 issue: 
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