To classmates, Lieberman’s presidential bid is ‘no surprise’

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Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Kaiser ’64 still remembers the elections for the Yale Daily News Editorial Board of 1964, when his close friend, Joseph Lieberman, secured an unprecedented landslide victory.

Though Lieberman joined the reporting staff of the newspaper in the spring of his sophomore year, long after the majority of his classmates signed on as reporters, it did not take long for his profile to surpass that of his peers.

“He only lost one vote,” Kaiser said matter-of-factly. “Which was mine, ’cause I voted for myself.”

Kaiser — who originally met Lieberman on Election Day in 1960 when they both served as volunteers to drive voters to the polls — said his friend’s subsequent rise to national prominence is no shock to his closest acquaintances at Yale. Last month, Lieberman, the junior U.S. senator from Connecticut, announced his candidacy for president in 2004. He is joined in the Democratic primary by two other Yale graduates, Howard Dean ’71 and Sen. John Kerry ’66.

“None of us who knew him well have been surprised by anything except maybe the extent of his success,” Kaiser said. “He was headed into politics and everyone knew it. He knew what he was and knew what he wanted and he had a lot of confidence in his ability to win his classmates over.”

Kaiser, who is nearing 40 years of service at The Washington Post, having donned every cap from reporter to managing editor, said Lieberman possessed the same traits at age 20 that make him a presidential candidate at 60.

“He was very much in control of himself and already knew what he wanted,” said Kaiser. “That combination of self-awareness and self-discipline is very unusual.”



‘Joe’ of all trades

Joseph Isadore Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 was already accomplished and highly motivated when he entered Yale in the fall of 1960.

Lieberman, who grew up in Stamford, is the only son of a liquor store owner and was the first in his family to attend college. He nourished his intellectual appetite and political ambitions during his four years on campus, and by the time he graduated in 1964, he had emerged as one of the most prominent members of his class, known to fellow Yalies and local politicos alike.

“The thing that strikes me about Joe was that he was so much more mature than everyone else,” said Gary Saxonhouse ’64, a close friend and hallmate of Lieberman’s during their time in Morse College. “He was like your favorite uncle stuck in the skin of a 20-year-old.”

A quasi-celebrity on campus, Lieberman was known to most of his classmates for his participation in a wide range of student activities. In addition to serving as chairman of the Yale Daily News Board, he also served as class treasurer and was a member of the Pundits, Aurelian Honor Society, the Elihu Club, the Senior Advisory Board, and the Class Council.

Jethro Lieberman ’64, the associate managing editor under Lieberman at the News and current associate dean for academic affairs at New York University School of Law, remembered Joseph Lieberman’s victory in the race for senior class treasurer as a prime example of the man’s affability and celebrity on campus.

“He threw his name in the ring at the last minute and became treasurer of the class,” Jethro Lieberman said of the early political foray. “He was one of the most well-known and respected people on campus.”

Joseph Lieberman, a “Division 2″ major — comparable to today’s ethics, politics, and economics major– gained this elevated presence on campus in part because of the high profile the News had at the time, Jethro Lieberman said.

As chairman of the News, Joseph Lieberman’s principal function was to write regular editorials which addressed pertinent matters of the day. Aside from an occasional lighthearted piece, Lieberman usually chose to write about the hardest-hitting issues of the time period. His notable opinions included an affirmative stance on the potential coeducation of Yale, the American Dream, civil rights, and a eulogy for Pope John XXIII as his health deteriorated in 1963.

When an unidentified student was quoted in the newspaper saying, “Women are like wallpaper — pretty to look at but not really essential,” Lieberman wrote, “Coeducation is a responsibility and an ultimate necessity. The reasons against it seem more emotionally grounded than rationally considered.”



Challenging and embracing the establishment

But his most famous editorials included a piece titled “An Explanation: Why I Go to Mississippi,” written immediately preceding a much-publicized trip Lieberman took to Jackson, Miss., in late October 1963, and another which ran roughly a month later on the impact of President John F. Kennedy’s death.

In the fall of his senior year, Lieberman was part of a sizeable contingent of Yalies who trekked down to Jackson, Miss., to lend a hand to organizations like Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who hoped to advance the civil rights movement underway in the South.

In the editorial outlining his reasons for travelling to the Deep South, Lieberman called what he and others would be doing “American,” stating, “I am going to Mississippi because I feel that my presence, as a white man, can indicate to Negro Mississippians that there are white men — whose insides burn with anxiety and guilt when they consider the way in which other white men have sought to rob the black man of his humanity.”

Upon arriving at the project headquarters in Jackson, the students assisted in staging a mock vote in which blacks cast ballots for Aaron Henry, who was barred from the official election for governor because he was black. The goal was to amass more votes for the unofficial candidate than the official victor, Paul B. Johnson Jr. Prompted by civil rights activists Allard Lowenstein, the well-known Congressman and one-time dean of Stanford University, and Yale University Chaplain William Sloane Coffin, the students’ voyage to the South represented Northern sympathies for the struggle and has been tied to Lieberman’s name ever since.

Saxonhouse, an economics professor at the University of Michigan, was one of the students who drove the roughly 25 hours to Mississippi and said the scope of the project would not have been possible without Lieberman.

“There’s no question that Joe’s participation made an enormous difference,” Saxonhouse said. “It would have been a very marginal event for Yale if Joe had not gotten involved and made the very strong commitment that he did. Coffin told him there was no way he could lead unless he himself went down there.”

In his interview with New York Times reporter Jodi Wilgoren ’92, Lieberman — who could not be reached for comment — spoke about his experience in Mississippi.

“It was the first time in my life that I felt racial division so seriously,” he said. “And was in this unusual and sort of perspective-changing position of feeling that my own race was a threat to me and those who were black were not, were protective.”

Howard Gillette Jr. ’64, who was managing editor at the News under Lieberman, said the two-week voter rights campaign was progressive, but not radical. Lieberman’s careful negotiation between respect for the status quo and a yearning for improvement through progressive action followed the future senator through his early political career in New Haven and Connecticut, Gillette said.

“Joe challenged [the establishment] in some ways and embraced it in others,” said Gillette, now a history professor at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J. “He had to navigate those shoals and he did it quite well.”



An early influence

A political idolization of John F. Kennedy contributed to Lieberman’s reverence for the institution of American government.

Jethro Lieberman characterized Joseph Lieberman’s political leanings in expressly those terms, calling him “a left-of-center Kennedy Democrat.”

“Everybody was swept up in that,” Jethro Lieberman said of the zeitgeist generated by the young handsome Irish Catholic’s rise to the presidency in 1961. “Joe certainly was. It was in the air.”

Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, struck Lieberman, as evidenced by editorials he wrote in the days following the tragedy.

“The loss is personal and deep. There is a gnawing void,” Lieberman wrote. “[Kennedy] embodied our dreams and now — with no forewarning — he is gone.”

Gillette said he remembers the day that Lieberman heard the news about Kennedy’s death.

“Joe was totally inspired by Kennedy in ways that really resonated,” Gillette said. “How incredibly upset he was. He knew it instantly that this was a total disaster.”

A few years ago, Lieberman told Matthew Obernauer ’00, who was writing his senior essay on the senator, why Kennedy meant so much to him as an impressionable 20-year-old.

“President Kennedy was special to me not only because he was young and vibrant and intelligent, but also because he was, like me, a minority. He was Catholic, and even though I was Jewish, I felt a connection to him through that.”



‘Straight-laced but not Puritan’

When Lieberman arrived at Yale, one of the first people to see him was David Wyles ’64, a working-class kid from Pittsburgh. They soon became good friends, rooming together in what Wyles dubbed “Dirty Durfee” freshman year and inhabiting the same hall in newly-minted Morse College in their junior and senior years.

Wyles, who writes screenplays and television movies in Venice, Calif., remembered one emblematic episode when Lieberman invited him to the Lieberman family home in Stamford for Passover — something Wyles had never experienced before.

Wyles said the assembled party was sitting down to a candlelight dinner when Lieberman’s grandmother, an Eastern European refugee, asked, in a staged whisper, why a non-Jew had visited the house.

“What’s this goy [Yiddish for non-Jew] doing here?” she asked.

“Joe put his arm around me,” Wyles recalled, “and said, ‘Bubbele [Yiddish for grandparent], he’s not a goy. He’s my friend.'”

Wyles, a writer at the News who was the first to openly support the coeducation of the University in the publication, also recalled that Lieberman prayed in the room regularly, donning tefillin, or phylacteries.

In the early 1960s, during Lieberman’s time at Yale, the quota system for Jewish students was just coming to a close, Jethro Lieberman said. Although Lieberman said neither he nor any of his close friends experienced anti-Semitism, “overt or otherwise,” during his time at Yale, observing Jewish dietary laws by keeping kosher was no small matter, since the University had neither the sizeable Jewish contingent it does today nor a Joseph Slifka Center, which opened in 1995 with Joseph Lieberman in attendance. Jethro Lieberman said his friend was exceptional in his adherence to kosher principles, eating off a special aluminum plate. In fact, when the servers saw Joe’s face in line, they knew to reach for the special meal.

Of Lieberman’s social patterns, Saxonhouse called his hallmate “straight-laced but not Puritan.”

“He wasn’t living a monkish existence,” Saxonhouse said. “His father was a liquor store owner. It wasn’t as if he had taken a vow never to touch a drop of wine.”

Asked if he remembered any wild drunkenness or deviance during Lieberman’s time at Yale, Sam Deloria ’64, who was a member of the Pundits humor group with Lieberman, scoffed at the idea.

“If he did, it was a secret life. He was a pretty well-balanced guy,” Deloria said. “My impression was that he was moral without being moralistic. He was not a ‘yee-haw’ George [W.] Bush type of guy.”

He remembers Lieberman as what would now be called the stereotypical super-organized, overachieving Ivy Leaguer.

“He was too disciplined,” Saxonhouse said. “He was the first person I ever saw who had a very elaborate appointment book as an undergraduate.”

Saxonhouse recalled noticing Lieberman listen to renowned Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling in his dorm room — slightly different musical fare than that of his friends in the 1960s. “He had relatively refined tastes for an undergraduate,” Saxonhouse said, noting that it would not be unusual to be met by these Scandinavian sounds upon visiting Lieberman’s room. Saxonhouse hypothesized that Lieberman acquired his affinity for this music from his father.

“His father used to while away the hours in that time listening to ‘good music,'” Saxonhouse said.

Kaiser also emphasized that Lieberman, despite his success as an Eli, was not a typical Ivy Leaguer.

“As someone as short and chubby at the time, he was an utterly unprepossessing presence,” Kaiser said. “He was not a natural Yale man by any stretch.”



The first Jewish president?

Saxonhouse maintains that, even in those early years, Lieberman’s bid for the nation’s top office was not a far-fetched notion.

“The idea that he might be the first Jewish president was widespread,” Saxonhouse said.

While many others who knew Lieberman profess that he is still the “same old Joe,” Kaiser disputed the claim.

“He’s changed,” Kaiser said of what some characterize as a perceived shift to the political right. “He was an unabashed liberal at the time, but he certainly has adjusted his views on a number of subjects.”

Kaiser also said Lieberman respected Jewish taboos at the time, but that he is far more devout now than in his youth. Kaiser believes the summer of 1963, when Lieberman interned at the office of Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, who previously served as the first Jewish governor of Connecticut, and Kaiser interned at The Washington Post, was a turning point in the aspiring politician’s life.

“I think from then on, certainly, I knew this would be interesting to watch and I was always confident that it would go very well,” Kaiser said.

Angus Macbeth ’64, who was in the secret society Elihu with Lieberman during their years at Yale, remembered him as a talented yet gracious figure.

“There’s a real streak of self-restraint in him,” said Macbeth, an environmental lawyer in Washington, D.C. “An element of modesty, not thinking he’s the only person in the room to be listened to.”

After he graduated from Yale Law School in 1967, Lieberman went into private practice for a short time. He served as a state senator from 1971 until 1980 and as majority leader for the second half of that stint. Lieberman was then elected Connecticut Attorney General in 1982 and served in that capacity until 1988 when he was elected to the U.S. Senate, narrowly defeating the deeply entrenched Lowell Weicker. He was re-elected in 1994 by a landslide and ran unopposed in 2000. Lieberman ran as Al Gore’s vice presidential candidate in one of the most hotly-contested and controversial elections in recent times.

“He’s always struck me as a truly decent human being in just about every way,” Macbeth said. “And in the profession he’s in, that’s worth quite a lot.”

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