Mano-a-mano with Joe Lieberman

Westport, CT—He was wearing a baseball cap in front of the deli counter, standing with his wife and two friends, wondering out loud what kind of egg sandwich to order. It was an unusually mild Sunday morning in late November. I had just rolled out of bed but there was no way I could miss that face. Half-hidden under my green hoodie, I told the former Vice President-elect that they make delicious spinach and feta at this place. He wanted to make sure it was vegetarian. He asked me my name and what I did. We talked about our shared Hebrew name and its origins. He told me a related story about his wife. I told him I grew up in the neighborhood and that I got my first job in this same deli when I was fifteen, they put me to work integrating the various sections of The New York Times in the back garage before dawn on weekends, that now I’m a clinical psychologist living in Paris. He said that sounded pretty great, how’d I manage that? Not wanting to get into it, I said, “It seems you’re not doing too bad yourself.” He introduced me to his Westport friends. For a man who I’ve come to see as a total disgrace, whose politics I detest, I found this guy very charming in person. I imagine he must share this trait with most successful politicians.

Itching to talk politics, after we both ordered I started asking him questions. I shared my concern with him that the next financial crisis will be worse than the last one, asking him how realistic our chances were to break up the mega-banks before it’s too late. He said that funnily enough someone just asked him the same question—as if “too big to fail” was a new concept—and went on to blame Republicans for blocking reform. I said, mistakenly, “You’re caucusing with them now, right?” He looked down and away sheepishly, replied that he’s still caucusing with the Democrats. I responded, “But you can understand why I could make that mistake, right? Everybody’s like, ‘What happened to Lieberman??”

Wondering about the best way to broach US-Israeli injustices towards Palestinians, a topic of deep personal concern to me and one in which he holds unique power, I asked the Chairman of the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs another crucial question: “Don’t you wonder whether we’re endangering both US and Israeli security by lending full support to Israeli aggressions?”

He responded that “it’s not a blank check” we’re giving Israel. He claimed that Israel has so few discussion partners in the region that they’ve become “paranoid”—he puffed his chest out and balled his fists to demonstrate what he meant. When I bemoaned the lack of real public debate on such a serious issue in the US compared to the relatively vibrant debate happening in Israel, he corrected me that there’s actually plenty of debate happening in the US—“just not in public.” I very much wanted that conversation to continue but he eluded further clarification and left to join his wife and friends at the picnic tables outside. I stood there thinking that despite the mysteriousness of that last response, it was very revealing about how he views American democracy, about how he understands the way it’s supposed to work.

What would you say or do given a surprise opportunity to face a contemptible politician mano-a-mano? Throw your shoe? Curse him out? It might have felt good to let out some real anger, to at least remind Lieberman of his deep betrayal of Connecticut voters, or about how profoundly he has shamed himself and the United States. I might have liked also to ask him which country he wants to invade next. Or about how many civilian deaths he thinks he might be responsible for across the Middle East and Central Asia.

I instead asked myself, What approach is mostly likely to have a desirable effect? Looking into the sympathetic eyes of a man who has successfully mastered an enormous, complex, and corrupt political system, I found myself taking the polite-but-critical tack.  

Leaving the store, still groggy and hooded, I headed towards Compo Hill Road with coffee and egg sandwiches in hand. He waved goodbye and called out to me by name. I swung around past his table, put my hand on his shoulder and reminded him of one short-term need that might possibly get through. “Break up the mega-banks, Joe.”

He turned and called out, smiling. “That’s the message of the day.”   

– YB

Some reasons why Joe Lieberman is hurting America:

•Over the last decade, his war-mongering has been off-the-charts compared even to many Republicans.

•His top-notch work to erode civil liberties and freedom of expression.

•His support for the use of psychological torture by the American government.

•His combative stand against the public option for health care, threatening to use the filibuster if Obama’s plan included a provision that the vast majority of Americans are in favor of. It wasn’t just his siding with insurance and pharmaceutical corporations over the public interest, it was his going way out on a limb for corporate profits at the expense of keeping people healthy and alive.

•His ardent campaign support for McCain over Obama in 2008. 

•If we end up starting a war with Iran, Lieberman will be largely responsible.

For more, see this Huffington Post list of Lieberman’s top betrayals of Democrats and this Think Progress list of Lieberman’s top betrayals of progressive causes.

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