U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 returned to his former office at the Yale Daily News Monday to discuss his experiences at Yale, his political career, and the state of the world after Sept. 11. Editor in Chief Chris Michel, Managing Editors Elyssa Folk and Bret Ladine, and Staff Reporter James Collins sat down with him for an interview.
Yale Daily News: How did your experiences at Yale, especially going down to the South during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, shape who you are today as a senator?
Sen. Lieberman: Yale changed my life. I don’t know how to say it in any other way. It transformed my sense of myself, and my sense of what was possible. — In addition to giving me a great education, I got to meet a range of people who really expanded my horizons — through the News particularly.
[The Rev.] William Sloane Coffin — was a real moral provocateur on campus then. I came in here with a whole set of feelings about equality and opportunity being the American ideal, and — in a very real sense I experienced that personally at Yale because I was the first person in my family to go to college. But people like Coffin and the world around me — Kennedy was president — began to move me toward public service as a career.
Going to Mississippi was an experience that was very important to me, but in some sense I tucked it away and I never talked about it much in my public career here in Connecticut.
[Some people] were saying that black people were not registering to vote because they didn’t want to vote. So the idea was to run a mock election for governor in which an African-American man named Aaron Henry ran for governor. We were going to bring a lot of students in from elsewhere in the country to sort of encourage the effort, and be specifically helpful. So Coffin said, “As editor of the News, you are the student leader on campus. This is your opportunity to do something important and good.” The message was clear, so I said I would definitely do it. I started to editorialize on it; I said I was going myself. It was a very important experience, and catalyzed me into the civil rights movement.
What is the biggest crisis you’ve ever lived through, and where does Sept. 11 rank?
It may well be Sept. 11, in my adult lifetime. I was born after Pearl Harbor; I was a child during the atomic attacks on Japan at the end of the war. I was greatly affected in a personal sense, because of the age I was, by Kennedy’s assassination, and then by the two that followed, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. But Sept. 11 was larger for our country, I think, although they each have comparable parts to them.
I was in [the Yale Daily News] building when I learned that Kennedy had been shot in ’63. We had a rickety old television on the first floor, and I went down and watched it.
Sept. 11 was just as broad. — Not that one expects the assassination of a national leader, but it’s more within the realm of experience, historically certainly, than what happened on the 11th.
In Congress, there was a greater sense of bipartisanship immediately following Sept. 11, which now may be disintegrating somewhat. Where do you see that going?
I was there for the debate on the Gulf War in the Senate, and — there was a very deeply divisive debate authorizing President [George H.W.] Bush to take action. The vote was 52-47. It was very close. Here, there was hardly any debate. And the unity continued, in the authorization and appropriation of funding. I am proud as a Democrat that we fell in line together behind the president as commander in chief.
But there are differences of opinion in other areas, some with regard to foreign policy, and we have to speak to them. Right now the administration seems to be saying that they don’t want American troops to be part of a peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. I was over there with [Sen.] John McCain in January. I think that because of the reluctance of the regional warlords and the interests of some of the great powers in the region — Iran, China, Russia — the new government of [interim Afghan leader Hamid] Karzai is in jeopardy. [There] is a classic Churchill line about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. I think we need to be part of the peacekeeping force because we can lose the victory we’ve gained if we don’t help the new Afghan government really create a national government. The Bush administration disagrees.
On other matters, particularly of domestic policy — economic, environmental, health care — I think there are going to be disagreements. But my hope is that the tone is different, that we can disagree without being personally abusive to one another, and without falling back into the reflexive partisanship that’s characterized Congress for too much of the time that I’ve been there. I think that we’re going to be all right. We’re still going to hold together on the war, and the Congress will reflect what the public is saying and feeling about this.
Talking more about the war on terrorism, what’s been your impression of it so far, and where do you think, if anywhere, it should go? There’s been a lot of talk about Iraq.
I think we’ve done really well in executing the war in Afghanistan, and it’s very important to not just take that for granted. Remember that after Sept. 11 — and the declaration of war against terrorism — there were people who were saying that we were getting in over our heads, that the Afghans were ferocious fighters, that they had slaughtered the British, that they had defeated the Russians, and that we were going to be in trouble. And we won a remarkable, rapid victory, which is the result of the skill of our fighting forces and the assistance we got from indigenous Afghans, including particularly the Northern Alliance.
Incidentally, and not to be partisan, I can’t help but say that — remembering that the Bush-Cheney ticket kept criticizing the Democratic administration for having weakened the military during the ’90s — the military that won the war in Afghanistan was the military that was turned over to President Bush on Jan. 20, 2001. It wasn’t remade, and those weapons weren’t bought, in those eight or nine months from then until October, when the war started. I’m proud of that.
I think that the next stage of the war is exactly what’s happening now — to make sure that al Qaeda and the Taliban do not reconstitute themselves; that we continue to have it as our objective to capture or kill [Osama] bin Laden and [Mullah Mohammad] Omar, the two leaders; and that we begin to work with friendly governments to make sure that they don’t redeploy somewhere, like Somalia or Sudan. That’s the first priority.
The second is, what do you with the significant state sponsors of terrorism? I was hopeful at the beginning of the post-Sept. 11 period — when it seemed as if we were going to end up being allies of Iran in the war in Afghanistan — that we could look to a different stage in our relationship with Iran, which would be preconditioned on them stopping their support of terrorism. Quite the opposite has happened. We have to really work, diplomatically and strategically, with Iran and Syria to see if we can get them to break that.
And then the other [problem] is Iraq, which I think on its own constitutes — a direct threat to the U.S. Iraq is unique because of Saddam’s anger, his motivation, and what we know about his possession of weapons of mass destruction and his willingness to use them. I know there’s a debate that’s been going on inside the Bush administration, and I’ve wanted to speak out on this so that they would know that there were some Democrats who would support them if they took aggressive action. I think that the president has turned a corner on this. [U.S. Secretary of State Colin] Powell has said that the goal is now not just to contain Iraq under Saddam [Hussein], but to change the regime. And I don’t think they’ve decided how or when, but I’m glad if I’m correct that they’ve decided to do it. I think the how or when needs to be up to the military.
Why did you decide to go into politics in the first place, and if you had a piece of advice for college students trying to figure out what they want to do today, what would it be?
When I came to Yale, my family and my religious instructors — my rabbi particularly — were very focused on doing good deeds, trying to make a difference, making your mark, and improving the world. My family had a real sense of gratitude to the country. My dad always used to tell me when I was older that he never complained about paying taxes because it was the price he paid to live in America. So I brought all that with me to Yale.
And then there was really an ethic of service here then. Presidents [A. Whitney] Griswold and [Kingman] Brewster articulated a vision here of a “democratic elite.” It sounds very Judaic: we were chosen to come to Yale. But part of being chosen to come to Yale meant that you had a responsibility to give back what you were getting — the best education imaginable — and you were being trained for service. It might not always be public service, but whatever you did, you were supposed to be involved in bettering the community. Kennedy’s election had a very powerful effect on all that.
By the time I left Yale Law School, if somebody asked me what’s your dream in life, I would have said: my dream in life is to be a United States senator. So I’ve been very lucky. Having been nominated for vice president literally goes beyond my dreams, so I’m very grateful.
How do you prepare for [deciding what you want to do]? I would say to do something that the News interfered with, which is to study history. Read political philosophy, history and biography. And then throw yourself into it.
There’s no particular formula. I ended up staying here in New Haven instead of going home to Stamford for reasons that seem rather inconsequential now. And then I got active in the community. I took a risk. I ran for state senator in 1970 against the incumbent Democrat in a primary, and I was 27 years old. It was a crazy thing to do, totally irrational. But I had nothing to lose. And I won, so that was the beginning.
How about 2004?
As I said, I’m beyond my dreams, so it’s really quite a thrill and an honor to have people even talk about me as a presidential candidate. So the truth is that I’m thinking about it, and I’m leaving the door wide-open. But I’m not rushing through yet. It’s a big decision. I think I’ve got to make the decision by the end of this year because it’s such an enormous undertaking. And you’ve really just got to be ready to go at the beginning of ’03. But I’ll let you know as soon as I do.
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