Vice President Gore today selected Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman to be his running mate this fall, charting an independent course from President Clinton while making history by naming the first Jew ever to a major party ticket.
Lieberman was the first prominent Democrat to rebuke President Clinton for his affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, and he is considered one of the Senate's leading moderates, a lawmaker who has worked across party lines on such issues as education reform and Social Security.
The vice president turned to Lieberman after considering several others--most seriously Sens. John Edwards (N.C.) and John F. Kerry (Mass.), according to Gore advisers. In a brief midday phone call, Lieberman accepted the offer and joined Gore in prayer before flying here with his family for a dinner with the Gore family and the formal announcement Tuesday.
"Miracles happen," the 58-year-old Lieberman told reporters in Hartford, with obvious emotion. "I believe deeply in Al Gore," he added. "I've known him for 15 years. I have not met a more honorable, intelligent, hard-working progressive person in public life in America than Al Gore."
The selection of Lieberman marks the first step in Gore's effort to regain the initiative from Republican nominee George W. Bush, who in the aftermath of the GOP convention in Philadelphia has moved to his biggest lead of the year, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. [Details, Page A11]
In turning to the two-term "New Democrat," Gore was clearly aiming at the centrist voters who hold the balance of power in modern presidential elections. He is also taking presidential politics into uncharted waters: Lieberman and his wife Hadassah are Orthodox Jews who strictly observe the Jewish Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
How Lieberman will juggle the rigorous duties of faith with his campaign responsibilities remains to be seen, as will the reaction of voters to the novelty of a Jew on a national ticket. Gore plans to spotlight the issue on the campaign trail by drawing parallels to John F. Kennedy's victory as the first Roman Catholic president 40 years ago.
Beginning with a joint appearance at the War Memorial here Tuesday and concluding with his acceptance speech at next week's Democratic convention, Gore hopes to use the next 10 days to complete a year-long effort to reintroduce himself. With Lieberman literally at his side, Gore aims to illustrate what his aides have argued for months: that he should not be lashed to the personal scandals of Bill Clinton but ought to get some of the credit for the administration's economic achievements.
While critical of Clinton's personal lapses, the Connecticut senator has been a largely enthusiastic cheerleader of the administration on substantive issues, and he praised Gore yesterday as a "full partner" in shaping policy with Clinton. He also indicated he was prepared to assume the standard vice presidential role of attacking the other ticket--with relish.
"This Republican ticket will take us back to the failed policies of the past," Lieberman told members of the Connecticut AFL-CIO. "The bottom line: When the working people of America look for a helping hand from the other party and the other ticket, they too often will receive the back of their hand."
Up and down the Democratic Party, Lieberman was praised as an unconventional--some said bold--choice that shifts attention back onto the policy agenda the Gore team believes can ultimately trump Bush's personal charm. Like Gore, Lieberman is a free-trader who supports expanding health care, environmental protection, campaign finance overhaul and strict gun controls.
"I have always felt if we could have an honest debate about the issues, Al Gore would be elected president," said Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman, who surveyed Democratic activists during the selection process. "You can't question Joe's character, integrity. All the buzzwords we heard at the Republican convention will clearly be muted."
"Joe gets along with just about everyone in the [Democratic] caucus," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) "He's taken some independent stances from time to time but he hasn't offended anyone by that."
Though he was the target of Lieberman's most famous Senate speeches, President Clinton was effusive in his praise of the senator. "I think he's one of the most outstanding people in public life," Clinton told reporters traveling with him in Martha's Vineyard. The president called to congratulate Lieberman late this afternoon.
The Lieberman choice elicited a relatively low-key response from Republicans. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said in a statement that Lieberman was a "good man whom Governor Bush and [former Defense] Secretary [Richard B.] Cheney respect," but added, "Al Gore has chosen a man whose positions are more similar to Governor Bush's than to his own."
In the Senate, Lieberman has compiled a down-the-middle voting record seasoned with a bipartisan style. An early consumer advocate and defense hawk, Lieberman in recent years has made his mark on the nation's values debate, pushing legislation for a television "v-chip" that enables parents to screen objectionable programming and joining Republican William Bennett in decrying "gangsta rap."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.), citing his work with Lieberman "to achieve a bipartisan national security solution which best serves our nation and allies," said of Lieberman's selection: "I think he deserves it. He's a good man."
Unlike Gore, Lieberman has kept an open mind on two hot-button issues that rankle some core Democratic constituencies: private school vouchers and partial privatization of Social Security. Seeking to dampen any criticism, Gore called AFL-CIO President John Sweeney last night to explain his decision, and Sweeney endorsed Lieberman's selection as "proof that Al Gore practices as well as preaches the politics of inclusion."
Gore's selection followed a lengthy vice presidential vetting process managed by former secretary of state Warren Christopher. The list was cut down to six finalists last week, including New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.). Gore settled on Lieberman around midnight Sunday after lengthy discussions with family and close advisers.
Advisers declined to say why Lieberman beat out the other finalists, but they said Gore was heavily influenced by his long-standing working relationship with the senator. One strategist said that Lieberman should "reassure" voters who worried Gore was too liberal for their taste; another high-ranking Democrat called the choice "favorable yet risky" because of Lieberman's religion and uncertainty about his ability to add some pizazz on the campaign trail.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo, an ally of Gore's, said the choice provides a "historic" opportunity to "elect a vice president and simultaneously break down a religious barrier."
Like the Clinton-Gore partnership, Lieberman's decades-long relationship with the president was strained but not severed by the Lewinsky scandal. While still at Yale Law School, Clinton volunteered for Lieberman's state Senate race in 1970, and both have been key officials of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. But in September 1998, Lieberman delivered a surprisingly tough speech on the Senate floor about Clinton's ethical lapses.
Lieberman spoke of a grave "sense of loss for our country, a reckoning of the damage that the president's conduct has done to the proud legacy of his presidency and ultimately an accounting of the impact of his actions on our democracy and its moral foundations."
Despite urging colleagues to censure his friend, Lieberman voted against articles of impeachment and has remained a steadfast policy ally of the administration.
"Lieberman has through thick and thin been one of the strongest supporters in Congress of our agenda," said Bruce Reed, a former Gore aide and Clinton's domestic policy adviser.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who said he has known Lieberman since he attended Yale 25 years ago, praised the choice. "Clearly, he brings moral authority and moral suasion," said Williams. "He will be supportive of our effort for self government."
Prior to his 1988 upset victory over incumbent Lowell Weicker, Lieberman served as state attorney general. He spent 10 years in the state Senate, including six as majority leader. A Connecticut native with a Yale law degree, Lieberman has been married twice; he has two children from his first marriage, another with his second wife, who has a child from her first marriage.
Staff writer Michael Leahy in Virginia contributed to this report.