By E.J. Kessler

Published May 23, 2003, issue of May 23, 2003.
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Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman’s May 13 appearance in front of a group of young Democrats in New York prompted divergent reactions in the national media.

The Associated Press led its story about Lieberman’s speech to 400 supporters of Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century by noting the “hissing” and “jeers” that greeted the candidate’s response to a question about his support for the war in Iraq. ABC News’ daily political summary, The Note, meanwhile, observed that while Lieberman heard some boos, “there was some cheering, too … and although this was a discordant moment, Lieberman overall gave a pretty boffo perf, and was quite well-received” by the group. The New York Sun went on to castigate DL21C in an editorial for the “extremism” the hissing allegedly signaled about its ranks.

Lost in the coverage was any discussion of the rhetoric or positions in Lieberman’s speech — a potentially more interesting topic.

Here’s what he did: Using a variety of rhetorical gambits, Lieberman sought to portray himself as the natural heir to the mantle of President Clinton. He referred repeatedly to the “Clinton-Gore” and “Bush-Cheney” administrations; it might have been easier just to say “Clinton” and “Bush,” but including the names of those two presidents’ running mates allowed him to segue naturally to the “Gore-Lieberman” 2000 ticket. “I know I can beat George Bush because Al Gore and I already did,” he said in his speech, also trotting out Clinton’s trademark line about folks who “work hard and play by the rules.”

Lieberman stressed his economic centrism, calling himself “a New Democrat and proud to be so.” “I’m as enthusiastic about the right kind of tax cuts as I am opposed to the wrong kind,” he said, touting those that “incentivize jobs” as well as “fiscal responsibility” and trade.

He attacked Bush on foreign policy. “We’re in danger of losing the peace so badly [in Iraq] that the achievements of the military will be squandered,” he said.

He handled the Jewish question by making a joke out of it. Asked to comment on what it means to be the Jewish candidate, Lieberman said, “At least you didn’t ask, ‘How is this night different from all other nights?’ I’m an American who happens to be Jewish, not the other way around.”

Knowing that he might face some hostility from left-leaning members of the Democratic activist audience, Lieberman made so many ritual invocations of “civil rights” and “human rights” that we lost count. He also back-pedaled furiously when asked in an audience question to explain his vote for the anti-terrorist Patriot Act, invoking the legislation’s “sunset clause” and noting that he had voted not to confirm his Yale University classmate, Attorney General John Ashcroft, although what that had to do with his Patriot vote months later remains a mystery.

Lieberman looked good that night, wearing a dark pinstriped suit and subtly patterned blue and gold tie that nicely offset his light gray hair and sunny smile. As an extemporaneous speaker, Lieberman did okay but hardly set the gathering’s heart a-thumping, judging by audience reaction. As his party’s 2000 vice presidential nominee and a senator from a state that borders New York, he could expect a warm reception from the heavily Jewish New York City crowd. But he has a ways to go before he can claim to be an electrifying orator, some said.

“It was all right. It could have been more specific,” said one member of the audience, lawyer Joshua Pepper. Pepper, who said he is considering voting for Lieberman in the primary, wanted to hear more substance and fewer platitudes about Lieberman’s stances toward Iraq and the Bush tax cuts.

Another audience member, Debbie Margolis, who described herself as a “headhunter for lawyers,” said Lieberman seemed “enthusiastic and confident.”

In a nice anecdote, Lieberman described a sign he had seen held aloft during the 2000 campaign at a rally in New Mexico. It said “Viva Chutzpah,” which, he noted, were “two words probably never brought together [before] in a sign.”

* * *

In staff news, the presidential campaign of the Rev. Al Sharpton has hired a state coordinator for South Carolina. Kevin Gray, who was South Carolina coordinator for the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential bids, is staffing an office in Columbia, according to Sharpton’s campaign manager, Frank Watkins.

* * *

The presidential campaign of Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich made “thousands and thousands” of dollars at a recent Manhattan fundraiser at the Upper West Side loft of folkster Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary fame, according to Kucinich’s northeast regional coordinator, Chad Elson. Attending the event were such luminaries as Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Andre Gregory and Harry Belafonte, Elson said. The money is a welcome infusion to the campaign, which brought in a scant $180,000 last quarter and had $50,397.88 cash on hand, according to its April 15 Federal Election Commission filing.

In other Kucinich news, the campaign is distancing itself from a broadside about former Vermont governor Howard Dean circulated by a Kucinich supporter in New York, George Spitz. This column reported on the broadside and the Dean campaign’s reaction last week. Spitz “has no position with the campaign and his statements do not reflect the campaign or the candidate,” said Kucinich’s national communications director, Jeff Cohen.

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