Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.
Boyd Matheson: The American people are longing for leaders to fill the role of statesmen and stateswoman. Sadly, leaders willing to put people and principles before party and politics are vanishing from view on the national stage. Former United States Sen. Joe Lieberman, a true statesman, shares his insight on political courage, bipartisan collaboration, faith in the public square and lessons from a lifetime of public service on this episode of "Therefore, What?"
Well, it is a great honor today to be joined on "Therefore, What?" by former United States Sen. Joe Lieberman. Senator, thanks for being with us today.
Joe Lieberman: Boyd, it's a pleasure. Thank you. And I appreciate your work and more immediately, your kind words about me. Glad to be here for the conversation.
BM: Well, you know, we live in this very interesting time. I really do believe that the American people want to be led. They want to be led somewhere that matters and it seems that more and more, our politics are driving things and the political divisive rhetoric is driving everything. What does it look like from your perch?
JL: So I think that's true. I mean, I was privileged to be in the United States Senate for 24 years. The last two of those, which were 2011 and '12, were the least productive of the 24 for me personally, and also for the Congress. And it was because probably in every one of those years, with exceptions, partisanship seemed to become more deeply ingrained, ideological rigidity, and basically the unwillingness to come to the center from left and right to negotiate compromise. Why? To get something done, to solve problems for our constituents and our country, and hopefully to see some opportunities that need the government to seize those opportunities.
And the public is very frustrated by this, even though the polls seem to show that the people's loyalty to the parties is quite deep and strong, and actually the parties themselves are becoming more a reason for divisiveness. Still, if you ask people, do you want your representatives in Washington to be uncompromising in support of their principles? Or do you want them to work with the other party to get something done? And always the second choice wins out.
So you're absolutely right. The public knows it needs a government that's producing and solving problems and they need leadership and I think that's part of the reason why they voted, a lot of them with some uneasiness, for Donald Trump in 2016. Because he represented at least a change, a difference. And he came in with the record of a business executive. So they hoped it would be different. And of course, part of what's on the line now and as we head to 2020, assuming the president runs again, which I do, is whether they feel he's fulfilled that hope.
BM: Yeah, fascinating. I'm one of those who believes that we are far less divided than I think sometimes we buy into. There's a lot of fake fights and false choices. And I've always said you could probably solve 94 and a half percent of immigration in an afternoon on the floor of the Senate and the House because everyone agrees.
Part of your work has been with a group called No Labels. You were co-chairs there with now Ambassador Jon Huntsman, and to me as I watched the two of you work through that to me, it was never about this squishy, Kumbaya, group hug kind of thing, but more let's create a space where we can have big ideas, bold, you know, challenging conversations and debate and then let the ideas win on their own merits.
JL: Well, you are absolutely right. No Labels was never about kind of just moderation, that everybody on the left and right has to suddenly become a moderate. It really was about centrism. And by that I mean a willingness to come from left and right to the center to negotiate, to compromise, to solve problems. And I could not have had a better co-chair or partner in that than Jon Huntsman, your former governor. First of all, just an extraordinarily honorable person and you know, politics is a lot of headlines and back and forth and all but honestly, the ability to get something done depends on your trust in the people you're working with. Because somebody told me when I started my career in politics a long time ago in Connecticut, in politics there are no contracts. You don't write down a contract and have a notary seal it. It's a handshake, it's a promise, and your word is what matters and you know Jon Huntsman — I just trusted him totally so we worked together in different campaigns including John McCain's.
And then we worked together on No Labels and you got it exactly right. The whole idea was to bring people to the center to solve problems. And we've had great examples of that, back in the '80s with President Reagan and Tip O'Neill — one a liberal, one a conservative. They worked together to solve a lot of problems, notably Social Security. Even in the '90s, not so long ago, President Clinton, a center left Democrat and Newt Gingrich, probably right Republican, really an unlikely couple. But they worked together and got a lot done — welfare reform, criminal justice reform, and then the big achievement, a balanced budget act which actually balanced the budget and produced a surplus in our government for a couple of years. So it can be done and that's what No Labels has tried to do, first by just ideas that are supported by a majority of people that we try to interest the Republicans and Democrats in, and then the last couple of years, we decided that a lot of the problem in government is political and has a lot to do with campaign money and it was only going to be solved and made better if we got in there, raised some money, and supported what we would describe as center right Republicans and center left Democrats against, particularly in primaries, against further right Republicans and further left Democrats. Because they seem to be the ones who are least willing to come to the center and negotiate.
And last year, just to finish this, we got involved in 28 races, and we won 23 of them, equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. So I think we're going to be back in the 2020 congressional elections, even bigger than last time.
BM: That's fantastic. I want to go back, you mentioned this idea of no contracts, that it is all built on trust. We've been talking a lot lately that one of the inhibitors to that kind of trust is this instant certainty. That with the internet, and national media in particular, that we have to have this snap judgment, this immediate reaction or response that is definitive on any of the issues. We've seen it play out on a host of different cases, that what people initially thought was not quite accurate or right or completely wrong altogether. So I want to ask you just a little more on that in terms of that trust factor that you were able to develop, again, across the aisle with people like John McCain and President Bush and so on. What do you see as the key to building that kind of trust and those kinds of relationships in today's Washington?
JL: Yeah. Well, first you just pointed to a really important problem that doesn't get much attention, which is that we're in an age of such rapid communication and rapid attack and counter-attack in politics that people often feel compelled to do something that we didn't always feel compelled to do during my years in the Senate, which is to give an instantaneous response or to counter-attack immediately for fear that the attack will gain certainty, stability in the minds of people following it, particularly on social media. I mean, sometimes it was reasonable to say, you know, I haven't thought about that enough to respond to that yet. Just give me a couple of days, right?
And I can tell you that — I'll use John McCain, my dear friend, and here is a story for you. After he ran for the Republican nomination for president in 2000 and lost, he came back to the Senate and he came over to me one day, it was probably 2001. And he said to me, you know, and we were already friends, we cooperated on a lot of foreign policy and defense, but he said to me, you know, during the 2000 campaign, he had been asked a lot about climate change, global warming, and he said, I gave a sort of quick answer, and really, I don't think I understood the subject well enough. And then he said to me, You've been out there — which I had been on it, I'd already proposed some legislation — can we work together? And I told John, I'd love to. So the first thing we did was to sit down with our staffs, with experts, and we just sort of got educated. And John particularly wanted to learn. And then we put in a bill for three straight sessions. We didn't unfortunately pass it but we did get past 50 votes, we just couldn't get to 60 to break a filibuster. So I mean, that sounds like you know, out of another world from today, but there we were, Republican and Democrat, seeing that there was a problem — climate change — and taking the time to figure out what would be an appropriate compromise solution to it. And really, we've got to get back there somehow, to being willing to take the time to think and negotiate. If you just respond, you're probably just going to attack. And that leaves nowhere good.
BM: Yeah, a little instant uncertainty would probably help all of us be a little more open to learning.
JL: Good way to put it.
BM: I want to ask you, I've often said that the last thing someone should ask themselves before pulling the lever to cast a vote for someone is to ask yourself, what would this person do if they lost? How would they continue to make a difference? Because if you can't answer that, then this is not someone who can show real courage in office. Because it'll always be about holding on. You had a period during the Clinton administration where you really had to to show some political courage as it related to President Clinton and his behavior. Describe that for us a little bit and kind of your thinking. What's going on in your head as you were watching that play out and when you ultimately took a very bold stand?
JL: Sure. Well, I mean, your standard is a good one. Probably very few people do that. What will this person do if they lose the election? And that's an important question. So, when the facts of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke. I mean, I was just honestly, heartbroken because I had been an early — I knew Bill Clinton since he was at Yale law school, and I had just graduated and was beginning to practice law in New Haven. He actually helped me in my first campaign in the primary for state senator in New Haven. I was all of 27 years old and we won. So I helped him in '92. I thought he was a really effective president. When this came out I was just horrified.
But you know, I was home, it was summertime, and it was bothering me a lot, and then I'd go out and actually my family and I took a vacation on the Connecticut shore. We're on a walk along the beach or at the supermarket or the movie theater and people kept coming up to me, You have to speak out about this. You've been criticizing the entertainment industry for messages about sex and violence that go to kids. And how can you stand by and let this happen? And honestly, it got to me. And it was one of the harder decisions I've ever made to get up and make the speech that I made condemning President Clinton's behavior and appealing to him to acknowledge more responsibility than he had, and basically his guilt. But I knew in the end I had to do it and, you know, come what may. I had no idea what the impact would be. But you come to certain points where you say, Well, why am I here? Why have I've been blessed or privileged to end up as a U,S, senator, and not to sort of stick a cloth in my mouth when I feel really in that case, and I don't want to over use this word of moral responsibility. I mean, I grew up in a religious tradition really where it goes right to the Bible. You know, the higher you go the more accountable you are for your actions because the greater the consequences if you misbehave. I mean, the ultimate of that is Moses, who wasn't allowed to enter the promised land because essentially he lost his temper and therefore, faith in God on one occasion. You could cite many others: King Saul losing the kingship because he didn't follow what the prophet Samuel told him God wanted him to do in a particular circumstance.
So anyway, I did it with trepidation, turned out to ultimately have had a positive effect. I mean, to Bill Clinton, remarkable person that he is, about a week after I made the speech — he had been abroad, he came back, he called me at my house on a Sunday morning and essentially said, I agree with everything you said in that speech. I feel terrible about what I did. And I'm working with two ministers, counseling just to get my way back out of this and really to seek forgiveness. And he actually held a meeting with, as you may remember, with quite an interdenominational group of clergy people to basically ask forgiveness. So it was quite a remarkable time in my life. But I never forget the night before I made this speech. My wife said, Why do you have to do it? And I said, You know, I just decided I do have to do it, both personally and what people expect of me. And so that turned out OK, but I had to look at that. You're absolutely right. Maybe this is gonna be the end of my public service. But OK, if it is, I did what I thought was right. And I think that's important.
BM: On the subject of faith, I want to share with you a quote that I heard in a speech last year at the Becket Fund. They were honoring Rabbi Meir Soloveichik and in his speech, which was just brilliant, he said this. I want you to respond to this. He was talking about the Hanukkah lights. And he said that it used to be that Hanukkah lights were kindled not inside, but outside the door of Jewish homes. And the verse in Proverbs allows us to understand the lesson of the ritual. "The soul of man is the candle of God." Lighting candles outside the doors of our homes expresses that when people of faith leave their homes and enter the world, they take their beliefs and their religious identity with them. They don't check their belief at the door when they enter the public square. Their souls, the candle within each person, illuminates their path wherever they may lead. And so I wanted to ask you, Senator, what is the role of faith in the public square? It seems to be getting pushed further and further out of the public square. Is there a way for us in today's world to have faith as a dimension of diversity? Can we still bring it into the public square?
JL: Well, thanks for the question. But first of all, I'm a great admirer of Rabbi Soloveichik. Those are beautiful words, which I couldn't agree with more. And, you know, just personally I'll say very quickly I was raised with the idea that yes, it's important that some people are studying the Bible and Talmud, etc., in universities or in seminaries, but really the test of our religion is are we taking it out into our lives? Because that was God's purpose in giving us the law, giving us faith, giving us our beliefs whatever they are, and so I believe that very, very strongly and I do think, and here I go back to the founding generation of our country, you know, quite religious in their way. Pretty much all Christian Protestants, and all deists, certainly believers in God. That's clear in all the founding documents, Declaration of Independence, Constitution, but really what I go to is George Washington, I believe it was in the farewell address, pretty sure, where he says, and I'm paraphrasing of course, don't indulge the supposition that we can have a good society or just society here in America without the influence of religion. And I always have felt that was a powerful sense with a powerful message, which was that particularly in a government of law, where the government was intentionally limited, because remember, the founders had this terrible experience with the autocratic, in a way totalitarian government, of the King of England. So they wanted to limit the powers of their government. So the law in America would not control everything everybody did every minute, you had to have other sources of good behavior and Washington was saying there's none better than religion.
And I believe that and I always have believed that the establishment and freedom of religion clauses, they don't guarantee freedom from religion, they guarantee freedom of religion, including in the public square. And that's — we've been at our best, and honestly you can look back over history, some of the most challenging moral moments — the abolitionist movement against slavery was led by religious people. The social justice, social welfare programs that helped working people, early part of the 20th century, led by religious people. And of course the civil rights movement of the last century led by religious leaders, not just Dr. Martin Luther King, though he was clearly the primary leader, but a lot of others of different faiths. So I think the way we combine religious faith and our democracy is one of the greatest strengths we have. And if the Constitution is read or popular fashion dictates that people of religion don't have a place in the public square, the country is not going to be what our founders intended us to be and what each of us should want it to be.
BM: So I want to shift gears a little bit on you here, Senator. And I think one of the tests of statesman is the lessons learned in defeat. The lessons of victory are usually pretty easy. But the lessons in defeat I think are more challenging. And I don't know of anyone who has gone through that process of a presidential campaign, particularly as close as you were, having won the popular vote by half a million votes and still not there. Describe what did you learn from that? What did you take away from that whole experience?
JL: I suppose in the most direct sense, I learned that we've clung to the electoral college for too long, and I wish we had removed it. But no moves in that direction for a lot of reasons, which we can come back to. But really, it was an extraordinary experience. I mean, let me just say quickly that this decision of who you choose as a running mate is one of the most singularly powerful political decisions in our politics. Which means that the presidential candidate pretty much has his or her will in choosing who he wants. So I'm always going to be grateful to Vice President Gore for selecting me, and also for making history in the sense that I was the first Jewish American to have the privilege to run for one of the nation's top two offices. The campaign itself was thrilling, and people were wonderful to me. I probably never worked as hard as I did during those four months. You're going you know 18, 20 hours a day and you're visiting two, three, four, five states a day. Thank God I had my religious observance. I had the Sabbath so I'd know I was off sundown Friday to sundown on Saturday. And then it stops on election night. And there's this bizarre uncertainty. We've won the popular vote by 540 some odd thousand. But it comes down to the electoral college votes from Florida and recounting and chads. And it was really strange, surreal month plus after the election. And then when it ended, I mean, up and down, we win in Florida Supreme Court and then shockingly to us, the Supreme Court takes the case and decides essentially that it's over.
And I must tell you that my reaction, and maybe a mental health consultant would say either it was the right way or the wrong way. The next morning I went right back to my Senate office. I mean, it was just the way I dealt with it. I just wanted to say, Look, I'm blessed to still be a senator. This was an incredible experience. It was a profound disappointment in the end, but I'm going to go back to work. And you know, that helped me in the first days afterward, although I must say it was very difficult. And it still comes back to me periodically. What a strange twist at the end. And gee, I wish that we could have taken office and I think we could have done this or that. But, you know, my then 85-year-old mother says to me, the night of the Supreme Court decision, she was one of the few people that called me Joseph. Everybody else calls me Joe. "Joseph, remember, please. All that happened is you lost an election. You didn't lose your life, you've got a lot of life left, you're going to make a lot out of it. So you know, God bless you." Honestly, a mother's wisdom was quite important to me at that point.
BM: And good lesson for all of us in terms of really moving forward in a major way. As we come down the homestretch, Sen. Lieberman, I want to ask you about a lot of the new things — you talked earlier about the extremes on the left and the right. And they do seem to be more interested in kind of, I guess they have a vision of themselves in power as opposed to a vision for the people. You've been critical of those on the left that have been, you know, embracing more of a socialist kind of agenda. And obviously, those on the right have their own problems. Do you think it's possible for us to get to unity? What kind of leader or what kind of moment is it going to take to really unite the country that way?
JL: Well, thanks for the question. I mean, look, it's going to take the public to be aroused as they were in those 23 races that I talked about that No Labels got into where they had a choice really between somebody who was either a center right Republican and a far right Republican or a center left Democrat and a far left Democrat and choose the one who seems free enough and respectful enough of the opposition to be willing to come to the center and negotiate and compromise and get something done. In other words, ultimately, it's the will of the people and of course, this plays itself out every time we have a congressional election, senate election, but really in our presidential elections. And so we'll see next time how that works. But I agree with you, that I think there's a majority of the American people out there who may have strong opinions, one party or another, one ideology or another, but honestly they're loyal to the country first, which is what we all should be. And they want people in Congress and Washington to work together to get things done for America.
And so we've got the opportunity again, as the presidential and congressional elections begin to take hold and I'll go back to Washington again. He warned in the farewell address that he was worried about the increasing power of what he called factions. And he worried that some people were, already way back then, more loyal to their faction, which is a way to say their political party or ideological faction or interest group, than they were loyal to their country. And he said America could not remain independent and will never be truly strong and true to the values of the generation that founded the country if we don't put the country first. So hopefully that will happen as we go on. We have a way of coming back. That's been our history. This is a different kind of hole we're in now. But I'm confident really, not just optimistic, that we will come back and return to a kind of unity that will make our future better.
BM: Wonderful. Two quick final questions for you, senator, first we often talk on this show — I have a wall worth building. It's a wall of fame. I have autographs on baseballs, not just from the great, you know, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantles, I actually have autographs on baseballs from people who've made a difference in my life — authors, coaches, teachers. So if you were starting your wall of fame, give me one or two people that you would immediately want to make sure you got their autograph on a baseball for you?
JL: Well leaving aside the obvious, which is my mom and dad who really got me started, there's no question that President Kennedy, though I didn't know him really. He was the catalytic figure for my generation and brought me and a lot of others, really, into public service with that whole, ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. And that sort of tied into the religious lessons I learned growing up from my parents and my rabbis that, you know, we're here and our mission is really to improve the world. Our lives are a blessing from God. And our responsibility is to improve the world.
And probably along the way there was a governor, then senator, who I worked for as a kid, a college student, as an intern. His name was Abraham Ribicoff, a senator from Connecticut. And he was a model for me in many ways, just the kind of person we've been talking about. He once gave a speech, which he called the integrity of compromise. In other words, to compromise in a democracy is not dishonest. It's a way to get something done. It's not to really compromise your principles but to just not expect to get 100 percent every time you have a piece of legislation. Because if you demand 100 percent you'll probably end up with zero percent and everybody suffers. Those are two — Kennedy, Ribicoff, and of course mom and dad at the top.
BM: Wonderful and I love that concept, the integrity of compromise. We'll come back to that another day.
So as people have been listening for the last 25 minutes, what do you hope the "Therefore,What?" moment is? What do you hope people think different? What do you hope they do different as a result of listening to this conversation today?
JL: Well, that's really a challenge. So I'd say simply, not to not make it a long answer, that I hope they believe with me that America's best days are ahead of us. This is still the greatest place in the world to live, we're blessed to be Americans. And now we're squandering our current, and to some extent our future, because we're squabbling politically for reasons that are not as important as the well-being of the country and every one of us as citizens. So we, the people have to demand that our elected officials get with it and work together for the betterment of our country.
BM: Wonderful, former Sen. Joe Lieberman, a true statesman, thanks so much for joining us today.16 comments on this story
Remember, after the story is told, after the principle is presented, after the discussion and debate have been had, the question for all of us is "Therefore, What?" Don't miss an episode, subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast or wherever you're listening today. And be sure to rate this episode and leave us a review. Follow us on Deseretnews.com/Tw and subscribe to our newsletter This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, thanks for engaging with us on "Therefore, What?"