By Helen Dewar
Few senators speak with more moral authority or studied political savvy than Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the deeply religious, soft-spoken Democratic moderate from Connecticut who yesterday took the Senate floor to rebuke President Clinton for "immoral" behavior.
A longtime ally of the president's from their party's New Democratic wing and a successor of Clinton as head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, Lieberman had pondered his words in silence since Clinton admitted on Aug. 17 that he had had an affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and had falsely denied it.
When Lieberman finally spoke, after being urged by the White House to hold off until after Clinton left Russia, his words may have carried more weight than they would have in the initial rush of reaction. But colleagues of both parties said Lieberman commands attention mainly because of who he is.
"His words truly reflect his intellect, his morality, his soul," said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Connie Mack (Fla.). "He commands great respect from his colleagues, Republicans as well as Democrats."
"He's a person of strong conviction" that is rooted in part in his strong religious beliefs and has no compunctions about expressing his convictions when he believes it is appropriate, said his Connecticut Democratic colleague, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd.
In a measure of Lieberman's influence, he was followed in speeches by Sens. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who praised Lieberman and indicated agreement with what he had said. No Democrat had previously taken the Senate floor to criticize Clinton for his personal behavior and his false statements about it.
Mack's praise reflects not only friendship for his Lieberman but also the fact that Lieberman strays across party lines more often than most Democrats to line up with Republicans on key issues, especially on cultural and national security issues.
This does not endear Lieberman to some Democratic loyalists who regard him as a fair-weather supporter and a bit of an opportunist. Some also regard him as more than a little self-righteous in his frequent commentaries on moral concerns, although none choose to criticize him publicly.
Most recently, Lieberman broke with most other Democrats to support school vouchers and tax breaks to cover costs of children in private as well as public schools. Last year, he was often more critical of Democratic fund-raising practices than many of the other Democrats on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee during its probe of financial abuses during the 1996 presidential campaign.
Whenever there is a bipartisan coalition of moderates, Lieberman can usually be found there. He is currently working with Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) on a middle-ground proposal for regulating the managed health care industry.
He has supported Clinton initiatives more often than not, although there are conspicuous exceptions, such as Clinton's ambitious plan for health care overhaul in 1994, which Lieberman strongly opposed.
With his upright reputation and outgoing, amiable manner, Lieberman also has a knack for staking out shrewd political positions without appearing to be overly calculating. His speech on Clinton was carefully balanced, mixing a high degree of moral outrage with compassion, hope for redemption and forbearance when it comes to punishment.
Surrounded by politicians who often boast of their religiosity, Lieberman rarely mentions his faith but, as an Orthodox Jew, he is so devout he did not attend the party convention that nominated him because it was held on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, according to the Almanac of American Politics.
Now 56, Lieberman grew up in Stamford, Conn., the son of a liquor store owner, and earned a law degree from Yale University, working summers for his political mentor, then-Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.).
He crossed paths early with Clinton when, as a Yale law student, Clinton worked in Lieberman's successful campaign for the state senate in 1970. He won by defeating the then-majority leader of the Connecticut Senate.
Lieberman lost a race for the House in 1980 but was elected state attorney general in 1982, earning a reputation as a dogged consumer advocate, which he parlayed into a quasi-populist campaign against incumbent Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker in 1988. Lieberman defeated Weicker by 1 percentage point but went on to win reelection in 1994 by a majority of more than 2 to 1.
Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah, have four children.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company