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Say It Ain’t So Joe!

May 19, 2017 | post a comment | Philip Johnson

Many progressives will abhor the following statement, but so be it: There’s a lot I admire about former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. And it’s precisely because of that admiration that I dearly hope he doesn’t accept the poisoned chalice that Donald Trump is reportedly considering offering him: Director of the FBI.

Lieberman has been wrong on many of the key public debates of the last decade and a half. He was wrong to support the Iraq War (which I supported too). And rather than learn from that disastrous mistake, he doubled down by opposing President Obama’s Iran deal even though he had no remotely plausible alternative for curbing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. He was wrong to support John McCain over Barack Obama for president in 2008, and to continue supporting him even after McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, and proved incapable of responding intelligently to the financial crisis that erupted in the closing stages of the campaign. Lieberman was also wrong to defend settlement growth in the West Bank when, as the nation’s most prominent Jewish Democrat, he could have been a crucial voice for Palestinian rights and dignity. And he was wrong to help stymie a “public option” in Obamacare.

What I admire about Lieberman is more personal: His blend of cultural conservatism and respect for the rights and dignity of historically oppressed groups. For decades, conservatives have worried about the decline of two parent families and about Hollywood’s role in degrading the public sphere. But in their effort to restore the morality they associate with a bygone age, they’ve largely focused on opposing rights for LGBT Americans and for women. Liberals, by contrast, have often acted as if culture doesn’t matter. Increase economic equality and opportunity, they’ve implied, and the cultural problems that obsess conservatives will take care of themselves.

Lieberman has been different. From his earliest days in the Senate, he distinguished himself from other Democrats by challenging the entertainment industry to take responsibility for its impact on American families. He championed a ratings system that would make it easier for parents to keep violent and sexually explicit video games away from their kids. Some critics snickered, or accused him of trying to restrict free speech. But Lieberman’s core concern has been borne out: Video games can make young people more violent. He acknowledged the fears many American parents had about raising children who were continually bombarded by images of sex and violence, something Democrats had previously failed to do. Yet he staunchly supported abortion and gay rights. He focused on the real source of Americans’ cultural anxieties rather than using those anxieties as a pretext for discrimination.

Lieberman did something similar after Bill Clinton admitted lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Republicans began demanding impeachment. Many Democrats insisted that Clinton’s sexual indiscretions were private, even though Lewinsky had been Clinton’s employee, and Clinton had used the power of his office to try to buy her silence. But in September 1998, on the Senate floor, Lieberman publicly rejected the idea that Clinton’s misdeeds were nobody else’s business. “The President,” he said, “is also a role model, who, because of his prominence and the moral authority that emanates from his office, sets standards of behavior for the people he serves.” Clinton’s behavior, Lieberman declared, was “not just inappropriate. It is immoral. And it is harmful, for it sends a message of what is acceptable behavior to the larger American family, particularly to our children.”

Some liberals denounced Lieberman as a turncoat and a prude. But he was right. Clinton’s actions were immoral, and they did send a terrible message to children. By saying so, Lieberman didn’t strengthen the forces of impeachment. He helped Democrats find a moral language in which to condemn Clinton’s actions while also arguing that they did not constitute grounds for removing him from office.

Lieberman also blended cultural conservatism with tolerance in his relationship to religion. As one of the few prominent Orthodox Jews in American politics, he won respect for his religious devotion. But here too, he took pains not to use his theological conservatism to disadvantage others. When his uncle died, Lieberman became the executor of his will. But upon learning that his uncle had disinherited two of his children for marrying non-Jews, Lieberman got the will revised. Personally, he strongly disapproved of intermarriage. Yet when given power over others, he prioritized compassion.

If Lieberman becomes Trump’s FBI director, he will throw these decades of enlightened cultural conservatism in the trash. How can a man who criticized Clinton for having “undercut the efforts of millions of American parents who are naturally trying to instill in our children the value of honesty,” go to work for a pathological liar? How can a man who called Clinton’s consensual affair with Lewinsky “disgraceful” go to work for a man who boasted about sexual assault? Clinton possessed redeeming qualities: He had a deep knowledge of, and passion for, public policy. Trump, more than any national politician in modern American history, embodies the very cultural degradation that Lieberman has spent his career decrying.

If Lieberman were uniquely positioned to safeguard the FBI as it seeks to withstand the assault on its independence from Trump and his allies, perhaps all this might be worth overlooking. But he’s not. He’s not particularly qualified for the job. And he works at a law firm that has represented Trump. His nomination would be rightly seen as a White House effort to replace Comey with someone less competent and more pliable.

Trump degrades almost everyone he hires. Just look at Rod Rosenstein and H.R. McMaster, two highly regarded public servants whose reputations Trump has exploited to justify his misdeeds. Joe Lieberman has had a decidedly mixed political career. He’s made terrible public policy errors, but in valuable ways, he has also championed personal and cultural decency. In the coming days, Trump may offer him the chance to commit ethical suicide. For his sake, and ours, I hope he doesn’t take it.

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