Just because he crusaded against obscene rap lyrics doesn’t mean Sen. Joe Lieberman has no passion for music. Not long ago while visiting some of his more seasoned constituents at New Haven’s Bella Vista retirement community, he burst into song. “In comes Joe singing Sinatra’s ‘My Way,’ ” recalls Vincent Mauro Jr., 27, an alderman and family friend. “And the crowd was going crazy. It was completely off-the-cuff.”
Whether Al Gore’s stunning pick for his vice presidential running mate will prove popular with voters is still an open question. This much we do know: Wherever he goes—visiting the elderly, a local diner or a synagogue—there is no doubt that Joseph Isador Lieberman is a major smash in the hood. Neighbors of his in New Haven set up lawn chairs and applauded Lieberman when he arrived home Aug. 7 shortly after accepting Gore’s offer, making him the first Jewish candidate to join a major-party national ticket. For that matter, Lieberman himself was pumped. “I never dreamed of this,” he said. “It says to me…that ever)’ day we’re lucky enough to be alive, by the grace of God, is full of possibilities. And miracles happen.”
A two-term moderate, Lieberman, 58, is known among colleagues of both parties as the conscience of the Senate, having campaigned against TV violence and lewd music. More important for Gore—whose friendship with Lieberman dates back to the mid-’80s—he was the first Democrat to take the Senate floor to chastise President Clinton for “immoral” behavior in the Lewinsky scandal. That jab made national news, but those who know Lieberman know he learned his sense of propriety growing up in Stamford, Conn., the eldest of three children born to the late Henry Lieberman, a liquor-store owner, and his wife, Marcia, 85. (Sister Rietta, 55, is an Oklahoma social worker; Ellen, 50, runs a Connecticut theater company.) “They taught me to value and honor work,” Lieberman said—except on the Sabbath, when the Orthodox family paused to focus on prayer, the Torah and each other (a practice he maintains). While he embraced tradition, he refused to sacrifice a bit of good fun. “He would walk to the prom,” says high school classmate Jeff Weiss, 57, “but he would show.”
After college and law school at Yale, Lieberman practiced law in New Haven, won a seat in Connecticut’s senate in 1970 and became state attorney general in 1983. He and first wife Betty had a son, Matt, now 33, and daughter, Rebecca, 31. They amicably divorced in 1981 (he later said he felt guilty and that “we both experienced divorce as a personal failure”), and in 1983 he married Hadassah Freilich Tucker, then 35, a daughter of Holocaust survivors who was herself a divorced mother of a son, Ethan, now 24. She gave birth to their only child, Hana, in 1988, the year Lieberman upset Republican incumbent Lowell Weicker to join the Senate. “Despite all the glamor of Washington,” says his longtime rabbi, Albert Feldman, “he remains a very humble person.” He still calls his mother every day, does the household’s grocery shopping, and likes to sing show tunes from Oklahoma! and My Fair Lady with the family.
But for Lieberman, a grandfather of two, his greatest trait is not his humility. It is his adherence to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam—Hebrew for “repairing the world.” He strives not just to serve the public, but to meet its toughest expectations. “I assume that everything that I do in my life—everything—could possibly become public,” Lieberman has written, “and therefore I should not do anything privately that I could not justify publicly.”
Sharon Cotliar and Bob Meadows in New Haven and Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C.