Even four decades ago, Joe Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 might have supported the Iraq War.
“It was only after more than a century of isolation that the United States, through Woodrow Wilson, realized that its security demanded total involvement in the world and that its vision of man deserved extension,” Lieberman wrote in 1963. “[Today] we wish to help in building stable and free governments throughout the world. We are interested in giving men everywhere access to the benefits of modern time so that they may be removed from the chains of poverty, sickness, and ignorance.”
Though this excerpt may seem like a line from one of Lieberman’s final campaign stops this week — an attempt, perhaps, to explain why he supported the war and continues to believe in its original mission — it is actually from his “American Dream” editorial, which was published February 5, 1963, in the Yale Daily News, when he was the paper’s chairman and a junior at Yale.
The editorial and dozens of others published by Lieberman on issues ranging from civil rights, George Wallace and the Cold War to fraternities, women at Yale and New Haven police brutality provide insight into the ideological origins of the man who sent shock waves throughout the Democratic Party establishment this summer by running as an independent after losing his party’s primary to fellow Yale alumnus Ned Lamont SOM ’80.
“Joe was extremely popular and was extremely political, even as a young man,” said Robert Kaiser ’64, who served as feature editor under Lieberman and later went onto become managing editor of the Washington Post. “We left it to him, and those of us on the news side didn’t really have any influence over [Lieberman’s writing] or attempt to influence it. It really was his own enterprise.”
Why He Went to Mississippi
Signs of the relatively moderate Lieberman of today are subtle though still apparent throughout his work: He appears set on spreading democracy when possible, fears weapons of mass destruction and is not hesitant to criticize the Democratic Party. But by and large, his views — which he expressed in a straightforward but lengthy and sometimes self-deprecating manner — were strikingly progressive and strewn with calls to action, often soliciting angry responses from campus conservatives.
“Those vocally interested in the pursuit of peace or ‘alternatives’ to nuclear deterrence have been too easily labeled as ‘extreme-left-wingers,’” he wrote. “This should not have been and should not be now. Peace is everyone’s business … To be for peace is no longer considered un-American.”
He rejected the exclusivity and prestige of secret societies, wrote nearly half a dozen editorials calling on students and even alumni to lessen the plight of southern blacks, and, according to several editors who worked with him, considered himself a loyal Democrat, even writing a senior academic project on the Connecticut Democratic Party.
But foreshadowing his eventual split with the Democratic Party, Lieberman scolded the party’s leadership in one piece, condemning President John F. Kennedy for remaining in the political center by not acting aggressively to tackle discrimination.
“For at least two large groups in our society today — the poor and the Negro — the American Dream is bunkum,” Lieberman wrote. “Let it suffice to say that the history of the Negro in America is a blatant contradiction to all that this nation promises.”
Just months later, he would criticize Yale administrators for considering rescinding their invitation to pro-segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace to speak at Yale Law School.
“Did we think that the invitation to George Wallace might be an insensitive gesture to Negroes in Birmingham or in New Haven? Yes, we did,” he wrote. “[But] the principle of free communication — of confronting one’s opponent in an attempt at a rational dialogue — must win out in a University such as Yale.”
And perhaps the most striking example of his concern for southern blacks, Lieberman focused almost a dozen editorials or front-page articles on their lives in Mississippi. In fact, he cited his editorials on this topic as evidence of his civil rights record several weeks ago after Lamont criticized him for siding with Republicans on civil rights issues.
Departing somewhat dramatically from News tradition, he penned a column, “Why I Went to Mississippi,” with his byline, beginning, “It is with some trepidation that I leave the grandiose security of the first person plural — the royal ‘we’ editorials — and write in the first person singular, but the statement I wish to make here is a personal one.”
He then went on to explain why he would be going to Mississippi to campaign for the black southern politician Aaron Henry, a civil rights activist who had organized boycotts and co-founded the Regional Council of Negro Leadership. On the same day, David Milch ’66 wrote Lieberman a poem that appeared next to his editorial, questioning his tactics.
“So you’re gonna help the poor nigger — well here’s news, white boy, this nigger don’t want your white man’s help,” he wrote. “No matter how hard you try, white boy, you never gonna turn out black.”
Kaiser said that though Lieberman was not a radical in the context of his time, he was “much more consistently progressive then than he is now.” He said running as an independent was something the “Joe of our years would not be capable of.”
“He looked up to the Democratic Party of those days and would have taken it more seriously than he does now,” Kaiser said.
But Scott Overland, communications director for Lieberman’s campaign, said the views Lieberman expressed in the News are a good indication of who he is today.
“Senator Lieberman hasn’t really changed,” Overland said. “He’s always thought of himself as a Democrat in the Truman, Kennedy, Clinton mode: liberal on social issues.”
The News’ executive editor under Lieberman’s chairmanship, Stephen Bingham ’64, said Lieberman’s views have remained relatively consistent, though he said he could not imagine the Lieberman of the 1960s supporting the Vietnam War. He said his colleagues on the paper knew Lieberman was politically ambitious.
“People joked and called him Senator even back then,” Bingham said. “He was definitely in a hurry.”
Windows for Secret Societies
Just as much as Lieberman concerned himself with national politics, he often turned his eye to exclusively Yale affairs as well.
Merging the two realms in one editorial, he argued somewhat facetiously that he was advocating a position that only a rightist would adopt: dropping restrictions on residential college dances.
“Yes, dear readers of the Right, we are about to support a pure free market system for social activities,” he wrote in October 1963. “No college should be able to dominate the market … Never should a Yale undergraduate find himself on a weekend without a social event in his own college and unable to attend such an affair in another college because he is not in the charmed circle of 20 outside guests allowed.”
Yet Lieberman also had a penchant for stirring controversy and alienating factions of the Yale campus. He detested fraternities for their discriminatory policies, and he decried the secrecy of senior societies.
In his junior year, Lieberman wrote two editorials suggesting that fraternities would almost always choose a white student over a black one, despite university nondiscrimination policies.
“It is our firm belief that Yale would more ideally serve its stated purpose as ‘a university of the 20th century in one of the greatest nations’ if fraternities did not exist on this campus,” he wrote.
Half a year later, after two fraternity-related stories ran in the News, he received many angry letters, prompting him to write the next day, “Once more the fires of controversy burn between the Yale Daily News and its neighbors on fraternity row … [but] these stories were, in fact, written by individuals who feel much kindlier toward fraternities than does the Chairman.”
Two members of Beta, Jim Acquistapace ’65 and Denny Gallaudet ’65, said they were furious at Lieberman even if their fraternities contained “injustices.”
“The News, we feel, has misused its obvious monopoly on the media of communication at Yale by indulging in the kind of sensationalism which is so neatly sarcastic but which dodges the real issue at every point,” they wrote to Lieberman in a letter.
Lieberman gave front-page placement to his editorials criticizing secret societies such as Skull and Bones, for which he turned down membership, joining Elihu instead.
“Heresy of all heresies, it would be wonderful if, as a symbolic gesture, the societies some day put windows in their buildings,” Lieberman wrote. “No other institution seems to separate the haves from the have-nots so forcefully in the eyes of students.”
Though Lieberman replaced John Rose ’63, a very conservative editorial writer, he was in line with many Yale students who had become Kennedy Democrats. Jethro Lieberman ’64, who served as associate managing editor under Lieberman and was a fellow member of Elihu, said he thinks Lieberman has not changed very much from that mold.
“The campus at that point was probably just sort of dead center or maybe slightly left of center,” said Jethro Lieberman, who has no relation to the senator. “There were some real right-wingers, and there were probably very few left-wingers. Joe was probably slightly to the left.”
In his last editorial, Lieberman called for Yale and the world to start “moving again.”
“Perhaps the Great Ball of Goodness and Truth has been pushed forward almost imperceptibly a bit,” he wrote of his work on the editorial page in January 1964. “Regardless, the game was worth playing.”
And never shy of self-promotion, Lieberman once ran a familiar photograph on the front page: his own. He had just been elected class secretary, having lost the race for class president to David Sherman ’64, whom Kaiser said was one of the only men Joe ever lost to in an election. In another edition of the News, a photograph appeared of Lieberman captioned, “Friend of the People.”
Whether or not Lieberman is still a friend of the majority of Connecticut’s people — 43 years and three U.S. Senate terms later — is, of course, the big question, to be answered in Tuesday’s election.