By Kevin Merida
So now, the lawmakers and spinners and Lieberman friends are wondering whether this deeply religious Connecticut centrist, who has attacked the values of gangsta rap and trash TV, has actually changed the character of the Monica Lewinsky debate. Has the senator managed to refocus the public's attention on the morality of Clinton's actions?
"Joe Lieberman's focus on moral issues is both consistent with his long personal history and will affect many, many people on both sides of the aisle to ask the same questions he is asking," says Lanny Davis, the former White House spinner and ardent Clinton defender who happens to be one of Lieberman's best friends. "Certainly, his words moved me greatly, even though I don't share the harshness of the feelings he has."
What Lieberman did was call Clinton's behavior "immoral," his denials "intentional and premeditated." But perhaps more significantly, he linked his rebuke of Clinton to how "society's standards are sinking," to how "our common moral code is deteriorating," to how "our public life is coarsening."
"And now, because the president commands at least as much attention and exerts at least as much influence on our collective consciousness as any Hollywood celebrity or television show, it is hard to ignore the impact of the misconduct the president has admitted to on our culture, on our character and on our children."
This being Washington, town of political skeptics, there were some who greeted Lieberman's oft-described act of bravery as posturing -- a priceless moment, politically calculated to achieve the very response he is generating.
"Grandstanding" is the way Democratic consultant Victor Kamber described Lieberman's speech to MSNBC.
But Davis, who went to Yale with Lieberman and who made the senator his son's godfather, says: "As long as I have known Joe Lieberman, you have to know his deep and sincere religious convictions."
Lieberman could not be reached yesterday. But others who know him well say those convictions shape and drive his politics. In the Senate, he is the only Orthodox Jew. And he takes that role seriously.
"To me, being Jewish means having help in answering life's most fundamental questions, such as, 'How did I come to this place?' and 'Now that I am here, how should I live,' " he wrote in the New York Times in 1992.
Lieberman's upbraiding of Clinton was no surprise to the senator's rabbi.
"That was exactly the position I would expect him to take," says Rabbi Barry Freundel of the Kesher Israel synagogue in Georgetown. "Knowing the person, these are issues that are important to him."
Lieberman believes that "he has been shaped in many ways by his religion," says Freundel, "but he certainly doesn't wear it on his sleeve. He uses it as a source of strength and guidance.
"He firmly believes that there are other things in life other than politics," adds Freundel. "We sometimes suffer from politicians who believe that their political career is the be-all, end-all."
Lieberman's schedule includes daily prayer. Every day, he said in a recent interview with Washington Jewish Week, he studies the Torah and tries to incorporate it into his work, "without overdoing it."
He consciously observes Jewish traditions, the weekly reported in its June 11 issue. To avoid eating non-kosher meat, he eats vegetarian meals at functions. He lives within walking distance of his Georgetown synagogue, since Orthodox Jews do not drive on the Sabbath. He sent his four children -- three of them now adults -- to Jewish schools, but urged them not to isolate themselves as Jews. So faithfully does he observe the Sabbath that he missed the state Democratic convention that nominated him in 1988 as the party's choice to run against incumbent Lowell Weicker because it occurred on a Saturday. He sent in a taped acceptance speech. Now, it is a running joke among state Democrats -- because all their conventions seem to be on Friday and Saturday evenings -- that Lieberman had been a Baptist but converted to avoid the gatherings.
"I don't call my rabbi every time I have to cast a vote," Lieberman told Washington Jewish Week, "but the values I've learned are part of me -- beginning with the basic fact that I believe in God and that all are equal because all are creations of God."
As much as Lieberman's call-on-the-carpet may have seemed in character, some friends suggest he may have had a little prodding. After all, he and Clinton have known each other for nearly three decades. As a Yale law student, Clinton worked as a volunteer in Lieberman's successful state Senate campaign in 1970.
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who has known Lieberman since they were statehouse colleagues in the 1970s, suspects that Lieberman's wife of 15 years, Hadassah, may have inspired his denunciation. "If he didn't ask himself some questions, she would," said Shays.
"I happen to think his expression of concern for the president was motivated by his wife, who probably said, 'Joe, you've got to be kidding. You've got to speak out on this.' "
Hadassah is Lieberman's second wife. He and his first wife divorced, said a friend, after it had become clear for some time that the two had grown apart. He met Hadassah shortly after his divorce, when he was approached in the synagogue by a woman who said, "I have someone I want you to meet -- but not yet," according to Washington Jewish Week.
Lieberman told the weekly it was good advice because he was not ready to meet his future second wife. Six months later, on Easter Sunday in 1982, while running for attorney general of Connecticut, he found himself with an off day. In a drawer where he kept the names and numbers of prospective dates matchmakers had passed along, he found Hadassah's number. He picked her, according to Washington Jewish Week, because he thought it would be fascinating to go out with someone named Hadassah. (Hadassah is also the name of the Women's Zionist Organization of America.) She turned out to be the child of a Holocaust survivor born in Czechoslovakia.
The two met, the romance developed, they got married.
And Shays calls her "one of those special women whom elected officials are blessed to have." Which is why he wants to talk to Lieberman as soon as possible.
"I'm eager to speak with him because I'm anxious to see if my theory is right. She may have said, 'Joe, you may be a Democrat. But this is wrong.' "
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company