Awarded Best Student Magazine in the Country by the Society of Professional Journalists in 2021!

Where Have You Gone, Joseph Lieberman?

On Monday, October 28, 1963, Yale Daily News Chairman Joe Lieberman went on the record in support of the drive to register black voters in Mississippi. Along with 100 other volunteers from Yale and Stanford, Lieberman was heading south to help voter registration efforts and the gubernatorial campaign of black candidate Aaron Henry. He had the symbolic import of his mission in mind. The Chairman was going to show black Mississippians, as he wrote, “that there are white men who care about their plight . . . whose insides burn with anxiety and guilt when they consider the way in which other white men have sought to rob the black man of his humanity.”

Writing in the first person singular, Lieberman detailed and defended the reasons for his upcoming departure to the poorest state in the nation. He explained his system of beliefs, how life is a call for “love among men,” and why the present situation demanded the commitment of all men sworn to ending injustice. His style was neither overwrought nor overly self-conscious. It bespoke the conviction and self-assurance of a much older man: “I am going to Mississippi because there is much work to be done there and few men are doing it. I look to the facts of the history of this state’s treatment of its Negro citizens and I see very little but hatred and painful dehumanization. . . . It all becomes a personal matter to me. I am challenged personally.”

To be sure, “Why I Go to Mississippi” is not entirely free from moralizing or self-righteousness. At one point, Lieberman paraphrases Ecclesiastes and quotes the Talmudic fathers en route to proclaiming, “This country is one or it is nothing.” But in all, the “Senator” (as he was already being called) showed some real statesmanship. In the space of 1300 words, Joe Lieberman searched himself and his own motives, the criticisms of his opponents, and the call to action to which his heart had led him.

But impressive as it was, the thunder of the Senator’s column was stolen by a short, unassuming piece in the adjacent column. In “Communications,” the Editorial Page’s daily space for letters, Lieberman printed a brief poem by “D. Milch, 1966.” It was untitled and addressed simply to the Chairman of the News. It began: So you’re gonna help the poor nigger–Well, here’s News, white boy,  This nigger don’t want your white man’s help.”

And Milch was just getting started. Amazingly, the first three lines are almost polite compared to the 20 that follow. Over the course of three increasingly angry stanzas, the sophomore goes on to call Lieberman “white boy” five times; to claim “You ain’t gonna get a cause out of my skin”; to explain “You still got to count to ten million by ones”; and to demand, “Look me in the eye an’ call me brother,” all before ending with a disarming plea:

Just tell me we all got to die together,
So that there’s just two guys cryin’.

That’s all I want, white boy:
A chance to cry with you, together.

“Why I Go to Mississippi” might well be the first of Joe Lieberman’s many spotlit, News-grabbing declamations over the years–and not only because of its tone of impassioned moralism or its spirited call to public service. Even more telling is his decision, as Chairman of the News, to share the page with an angry detractor. The words were written in 1963, almost a decade before Lieberman ever took political office, but the piece and its rebuttal showcase the complexity of a candidate whose life so far has been largely cast in terms of simple right and wrong.

Most News accounts get it wrong: Joseph Isador Lieberman is above all a man of many paradoxes. His speeches are long-winded and heavy with facts and figures. Confront him with an issue, however, and he will respond with poise and passion. His presence on camera is unimpressive, his personality mild; but when he speaks, people stop and pay attention. His voting record shows his willingness to spend millions on programs that help the poor, and billions on programs that help the powerful. He cites tikkun olam, the Jewish dictum meaning “heal the world,” as one of his most deeply-held beliefs, yet he has also voted for every U.S. military action from Panama and Grenada to the Persian Gulf (the last on a Saturday–the Sabbath–no less). He is known as “the conscience of the Senate” as well as something of a moralizer. He is a reserved, quiet person–a hard-working family man who still calls his mother at least once a day–but, at the same time, a tough and often ruthless politician who knocks off seemingly unbeatable opponents before heading on to larger glories.

The roots of the complexity that defines Lieberman took hold long before Yale. Lieberman spent the first 18 years of his life in a working-class neighborhood in Stamford, CT, living in a house bordered by a junkyard on one side and a tenement on the other. Much has been made of his modest roots and Orthodox Jewish upbringing. Lieberman himself praises his family and hometown for their role in his early political development–that is, his development into an American who cared “about the future of our democracy,” as he writes in his recent memoir, In Praise of Public Life. Henry Lieberman was a liquor-store owner who also held a part-time job in a bakery, working 14-hour days to support his wife Marcia and their three children. The Liebermans kept an Orthodox home, and their only son’s young life was steeped in religiosity, a fact that has provided fodder for both his own political rhetoric and extensive media coverage. Lieberman writes that his political interests come from that “same surprising portal of faith because it has much to do with the way I navigate through each day, personally and professionally.”

Long before he even applied to college, Joe Lieberman showed a penchant for the inner workings of politics. He staged his first political campaign while a freshman at Stamford High School, using 1950s rock songs in his speech and winning the race for class president by a landslide. He went on to hold the position for three of his four high school years, and was crowned prom king, a victory that he was unable to celebrate because the crowning was on a Saturday. In his valedictory speech, he spoke on civil rights and called on his classmates to join him in the fight against racism.

Like so many events in his political career, Lieberman’s arrival at Yale in 1960 was exquisitely timed. In the first half of the 1960s, Yale was changing from the finishing school of the aristocracy that former chaplain William Sloane Coffin describes as “the bland leading the bland” to a hotbed of liberal activism and dissent. (By 1967, Yale had the largest number of students who had turned their draft cards over to the Justice Department to protest the Vietnam War.) In 1960, when Joe Lieberman’s freshman class entered Yale, it drew over 60 percent of its students from East Coast prep schools. At the start of his senior year, for the first time in Yale’s history, more than half of incoming freshmen came from public schools, and minority representation was slowly growing.

Along with this shift in demographics, the University’s leadership was changing. After A. Whitney Griswold died in 1962, Kingman Brewster took over as President and began an ambitious effort to break down the blue-blood establishment and recast Yale as a meritocracy. Reverend Coffin was one of the nation’s most vocal and visible civil rights activists and later spearheaded the anti-war movement. The first traces of social upheaval and liberal activism were appearing in every facet of University life. “Everyone felt things changing,” recalls Jethro Lieberman, a friend (but no relation) of the Senator’s who worked with him on the News and was tapped into the same secret society, Elihu. “We were really the Kennedy generation–the sense that we had to move forward was in the air.” And the young Joe Lieberman was very much at the vanguard of this charge.

In the days before student government and the bevy of undergraduate publications that now overwhelm the campus, the News was the undeniable center of political power at Yale. (Among Lieberman’s associates on the News were former presidential adviser and U.S. News & World Report editor David Gergen, famed activist lawyer Stephen Bingham, and Bob Kaiser and Paul Steiger, managing editors of The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, respectively.) Despite his interest and political ambition, Lieberman did not join the News staff until his sophomore year. Once he had, though, his rise to the top position was meteoric. In November of 1962, during the fall of his junior year, Lieberman was elected Chairman, the equivalent of today’s Editor-in-Chief, a position normally reserved for those who had worked on the paper since the first days of freshman year. “He joined the News late, which is interesting, but we never doubted he would be Chairman,” explains Jethro, Managing Editor under the more prominent Lieberman. “He was an extremely adept politician in the best sense of the word–a person capable of putting together coalitions of which he was the leader.”

Once Chairman, Lieberman moved seamlessly between the roles of politician and moral crusader. Under him, the News reflected the growing liberalism and social consciousness of a campus still dominated by prep schoolers. According to Coffin, “[The News] was picking up an ethical theme and the main issue was civil rights.” The Chairman’s most visible role was writing editorials. Lieberman’s prominent position and gregarious personality brought him into the public light and made his one of the most powerful voices on campus. His frequent editorials dripped with liberal idealism and moral certainty. “Being Chairman was important, and we thought it was a time when you could make a difference,” recounts Harvey Berenson, Business Manager of the News during Lieberman’s tenure. “With Kennedy, people believed you could do good works and save the world. It wasn’t as cynical as it is now.”

Indeed, the young President’s hope and charisma–not to mention that he was the first non-Protestant President–had no small effect on Joe Lieberman. Inspired by the infectious sense of change in the air, Lieberman went to Washington briefly during the Kennedy administration, spending the summer after his junior year as an intern in the office of liberal Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff (the first Jew elected to the Senate). His editorial the week after Kennedy’s assassination, entitled “A Void,” was the earnest and heart-broken lament of a young idealist: “He renewed our faith; he extended our vision of what was possible. . . . He embodied our dreams and now–with no forewarning–he is gone.”

Lieberman did not only write about civil rights issues. He was the first Yale student to write in favor of co-education, defended Alabama Governor George Wallace’s right to speak on campus (which was nonetheless denied), and ran editorials criticizing secret societies and the Old Yale elitism that they represented. (Though Lieberman would later join a society, Elihu, there are rumors that he turned down membership in the most exclusive of them all: Skull and Bones.) Throughout, Lieberman managed to avoid coming across as an overly pedantic scold. In fact, his final editorial did not wax eloquent on injustice or invoke Talmud. In it, he questioned whether he and his associates hadn’t taken themselves too seriously.

One classmate, Angus Macbeth, calls Lieberman “sardonically humorous,” pointing to his membership in the Pundits, a notoriously irreverent senior prankster society. And though he planted himself firmly within the mainstream, avoiding the showy label of “radical,” his pieces were often gutsy. In October of 1963, he wrote and published on the front page “An Open Letter to Yale Alumni,” criticizing them for their complacency on civil rights and calling on them “to use their influence in the power structure, the business complex–to bring about constructive and responsible change.”

That same month, Allard Lowenstein visited Yale on behalf of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to recruit volunteers for the Freedom Vote Project. The basic idea was to have fieldworkers direct a mock gubernatorial election among Mississippi’s black population. Blacks would be asked to vote–not in the regular election, to which their access was restricted by Jim Crow, but in a parallel “Freedom Vote” designed to minimize the potential for violence, and thereby ensure maximum voter turnout. Joe Lieberman was an obvious choice for the trip. Coffin remembers, “He had fine ethical instincts and he was concerned about civil rights. . . . I urged him to go and wanted very much for him to go.”

Thirty Yalies, Lieberman among them, responded to Lowenstein’s call and began heading south at the end of October, staying through the November 4 conclusion of the campaign, at which point some 80,000 votes had been cast. The presence of white college students sometimes served to draw attention away from the conditions that had brought them there in the first place. The New York Times sent reporters to cover the campaign, but headlined the stories with news that Yale students were working “for a Negro gubernatorial candidate in Mississippi.” During the Freedom Rally in Jackson, which concluded the campaign, TV men from NBC spent most of their time shooting film of Yalies and hardly seemed aware of locals and full-time SNCC workers. SNCC was, for the most part, fine with this: As one staffer put it, “It was clear that the press would respond to the beating of a Yale student as it simply would not do to the beating of a local Negro.”

So was it all do-goodism? While Lieberman was off in Mississippi, reports from the front-line dominated the front page of his newspaper. Besides “Why I go to Mississippi,” a description of the campaign by Stephen Bingham entitled “Mississippi and You” appeared in the editorial section shortly after the volunteers returned to New Haven. The News’ coverage reflected the deeply moralistic idealism of the day and was also rather self-congratulatory. Bingham wrote that “Yale University has a truly extraordinary record of giving of itself,” while an editorial note called the response of Yalies “a most significant indication of the awakening of Yale,” and wished the volunteers “Godspeed in their journey and service.”

Upon returning to Yale in November of 1963, Lieberman began a political education of a very different sort. He had been named a Scholar of the House, a now-retired honor that relieved him of all obligation to attend classes for the entirety of senior year and required only a thesis before graduation. So Lieberman went to school elsewhere, at a New Haven institution renowned in its day almost as much as Old Blue–the office of Connecticut Democratic Party Chairman John Bailey.

Bailey was to politics what Vince Lombardi was to football: For him, the point of the game was to win, sometimes at any cost. Bailey was an old-school “boss” in every sense of the word. In In Praise of Public Life, Lieberman wrote that Bailey’s machinations reminded him of Willie Stark, the autocratic governor from Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men: “I can make the mare go,” Stark tells a reporter in the novel. Bailey brought to power a considerable number of figures both in Connecticut and on the national level–including his friend John F. Kennedy, whom he successfully maneuvered into the Democratic nomination in 1960–and was instrumental in keeping Democrats in control of state government for most of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Bailey twisted arms and cursed and threatened and played dirty when dirty was needed.

Theodore White, in his 1960 book The Making of the President, wrote that “Bailey had in his fourteen years in office in Connecticut built the tightest New England political machine which he operated with merciless efficiency.” Bailey’s tactics would make a surprisingly deep impression on Lieberman, the professed champion of good works and tikkun olam. The master of back-room, hard-knuckled politics, as Lieberman once wrote, “was not totally evil, but then again he was not a philosopher king either.”

Lieberman’s apprenticeship with Bailey was more than a bit at odds with the spirit of Mississippi, but invaluable nevertheless. Bailey was later labeled “the young Joe Lieberman’s political rabbi.” After Lieberman chose to make Bailey the subject of his senior thesis, he submerged himself in histories of Connecticut politics and shadowed the man himself day and night. “It was a fascination,” recalls Jethro Lieberman. He conducted countless interviews, tagged along to legislative meetings, even sat in on important brokering sessions between local ward bosses and constituents.

In doing so, of course, he had more than mere commencement prizes in mind: “I could see that there was no better way to learn about the history and intricacies of Connecticut’s government than to tudy John Bailey,” he wrote in In Praise of Public Life. “The hours I spent interviewing him were priceless, my own private course in political science.” Lieberman repaid his debt handsomely, portraying Bailey in his thesis as a brilliant, cunning, and magnanimous leader who understood both that the political game was changing and how to win it. The admiring thesis–part biography, part machine political philosophy–was published as The Power Broker by Houghton Mifflin in 1966, while Lieberman was still in law school. (It remains the authoritative biography on Bailey to this day.) After graduation, Lieberman spent the summer of 1964 working for Bailey in Washington during his tenure as chairman of the National Democratic Party.

But in pledging himself to Bailey, Lieberman may have taken the first steps on a path that, as many of his critics claim today, seems to run counter to the course he had set for himself–both in his work with Senator Abraham Ribicoff the summer before his senior year and with the News as an idealistic crusader. To his early faith in the good, Lieberman added a new faith in the joys of victory. As Boss Bailey himself was fond of saying, “You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.”

Lieberman learned all this and never forgot it. If he sensed a contradiction in exhorting his classmates to heal the world while admiring and eventually incorporating the ethic of John Bailey, he seems not to have agonized over it too much. It was only by sheer chance that the Connecticut political machine came into the Senator’s life so quickly on the heels of Mississippi. But here emerged the two sides of Joe Lieberman’s political life–the desire to do right and the desire to win.

Shortly after graduating from Yale Law School in 1967, the pupil was ready to apply the lesson. In 1970, Lieberman was 27 and practicing law in the area when New Haven’s State Senator Ed Marcus announced his candidacy for the Democratic party’s US Senate nomination. Lieberman saw his opportunity and entered his bid to replace Marcus as State Senator. After Marcus failed to win the nomination, a State Senate race futile in the eyes of party insiders, between the recent graduate and the seasoned Senator, was on. But it was Marcus who would end up surprised.

Employing Bailey’s first rule of political success–organization,organization, organization–Lieberman enlisted a cadre of young volunteers, among them Bill Clinton, then a law student at Yale. Lieberman mounted a relentless door-to-door campaign and secured the vote of a vital constituency–Yale students who were allowed to vote in local elections for the first time that year. On Election Day, he shocked the Marcus campaign by rounding up senior citizens from a nearby retirement home and bringing them to vote in vans and station wagons. Lieberman went on to win the primary by 240 votes and, after that, the general election, remaining New Haven’s State Senator for ten years and majority leader for the last six.

In 1980, Lieberman ditched the State Senate and ran for the US House of Representatives, but lost to a Republican opponent after watching a 17-point lead dwindle down to nothing in the final weeks of the campaign. Two years later, he returned to the scene a new man. With a political acumen that would have made Boss Bailey proud, he positioned himself as a man of the center, a maverick of the mainstream unafraid to buck party lines for what was right (or what would win), and emerged victorious as the new Connecticut Attorney General. While in office, he revived what had once been little more than a political sinecure into a showcase for high-profile prosecutions and investigations, gaining a reputation as a tireless public advocate.

From the Attorney General’s office there was but one obvious destination to seek out next: Washington, the seat of power to which he had been denied access eight years earlier. Lieberman targeted Senator Lowell Weicker. And though Weicker was a Republican, Lieberman ran to his right, alleging that the Senator was out of touch with his constituency and using his office for financial gain. Still, he trailed for most of the race–that is, until he ran a now-legendary cartoon ad likening Weicker to a sleeping bear.

The cartoon opens with a trail of “Zzzzzs” drifting from the entrance of a bear cave, and an oversized bear cozily sleeping through the roll call vote. “On things that matter to him personally, he will always growl,” says the narrator, “but sometimes when it matters, he is sleeping.” Lieberman won the election, but only by 10,000 votes.

There may be no industry in which one’s heart and one’s ambitions so frequently collide as they do in politics. Joe Lieberman, perhaps more than any other politician of his time, has tiptoed without visible effort along the fine line between selflessness and self-advancement. He has won four primaries and nine elections–five in a row for the State Senate starting in 1970, two for State Attorney General in 1982 and 1986, and finally two more for the US Senate in 1988 and 1994–and lost only once. He has knocked off seemingly invincible opponents and–with the exception of only one or two small controversies–emerged from the fray with no visible mud on his suit and the Democratic nomination for Vice President to show for it.

Many characters from Joe Lieberman’s early days as an idealist and moral spokesman express quiet reservations about developments in his political life, such as his decision to run for Vice President and Senator concurrently rather than give up his seat to another Democrat. “The one thing I regret today is that Joe is not a conservative Jew and an orthodox Democrat–they are a dying breed,” said Coffin. Still, the Joe Lieberman of today, shrewd politician and “moral voice of the Senate,” is to them not radically changed from the young idealist who published “Why I Go to Mississippi” in October of 1963. Joe Lieberman’s days at Yale and the brilliant career to which they gave way bring into light a knot of complications. It was here that “the Senator” learned how public goals tangle with private intentions–and exactly how to exploit this complexity.

Ronen Givony, a senior in Branford College, is an associate editor for TNJ.

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, a sophomore in Berkeley College, is research director for TNJ.

More Stories
Imagining Myself