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What Joe Didn’t Know, and When He Didn’t Know It

Say it ain’t so, Joe! Just nine years ago, Senator Lieberman of Connecticut was a national symbol of moral integrity and punchy independence, the Senate’s very first openly observant Jew, the first Jew to appear on a major party presidential ticket, the first senior Democrat to rebuke President Bill Clinton’s naughty bits. Now, in less than a decade, he’s gone from punchy to punchline. Half the nation is agog, asking: Where have you gone, Joe Lieberman? Where’s the old Joe we used to know?

In fact, there was another side to the old Joe that most of us never knew. I first got a peek at it back in 1991, a few weeks after the end of the First Gulf War, at a festive dinner in Brooklyn. But I get ahead of myself. I’ll tell you my story at the end.

First, let’s review the events of the past week. It was a week in which, as The New York Times’s Gail Collins put it, “Lieberman’s apparently successful attempt to hijack health care reform and hold it hostage until it had been amended into something that liberals couldn’t stomach has mesmerized the nation’s political class.”

Why did he do it? Collins, in that column on December 16 (which happened to be Beethoven’s 239th birthday) said there so many theories that she had “decided to start a rumor” that during Lieberman’s failed 2004 presidential bid he was “bitten by either a rabid muskrat or a vampire disguised as a moose.” Ouch.

Yup, liberals were steamed — even on the decorous Senate floor, where Lieberman asked for an extra minute to finish a thought and was slapped down by freshman Senator Al Franken of Minnesota. (You remember Franken. The ex-comic who narrowly beat incumbent Republican Norm Coleman last year and tweaked Coleman by telling voters, “I’m the only New York Jew in this race who was actually born in Minnesota.”) Here’s the Lieberman-Franken smackdown, in case you missed it.

But why — leaving aside the moose and muskrats — did Lieberman decide to turn around so suddenly and veto a Medicare expansion that he had endorsed just three months earlier, that he himself had first proposed five years ago? Health-care wonk Ezra Klein of the Washington Post blogged that Lieberman “seems primarily motivated by torturing liberals. That is to say, he seems willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in order to settle an old electoral score” (meaning his 2006 defeat by Connecticut Democratic primary voters). Pow!

Fellow Washington Postman Charles Lane furiously retorted that Klein “essentially accuses Lieberman of mass murder because he disagrees with him on a policy issue,” which he said “is disgusting.” Sure, Lane conceded, it’s true that Lieberman “seems to bear a grudge against the Democratic liberals who tried to unseat him in 2006 because of his vote for the war in Iraq, and that he might be engaged in a little pay back right now.” Still, Lieberman’s “position on the Medicare buy-in is hardly beyond the pale. That’s more than you can say for Ezra Klein’s venomous post.” Got that? Klein was right about what Lieberman was up to, but he was rude to say so. Why, it was a shande far di goyim!

The New Republic’s health-care wonk Jonathan Cohn seconded Lane’s take on impropriety. “I think Chuck has a point here,” he wrote. It’s wrong to assume evil intent in opponents just because they disagree with you, Cohn wrote. “Absent evidence to the contrary, I shouldn’t accuse adversaries, in writing, of venal, self-centered thinking. And I shouldn’t assume they are indifferent to the suffering that motivates me.” Cohn added just one small cautionary note: “The trouble with Chuck’s argument is that there’s no evidence Lieberman believes any of these arguments against reform, and a great deal of evidence that he does not.” Zap! Boom!

Jonathan Chait, Cohn’s fellow New Republic-an (and fellow Gen-X Jew named Jonathan), fair-mindedly sought an explanation for Lieberman’s behavior that didn’t presume a vengeful or genocidal bent. “What’s his game?” Chait asked. “Why does he keep saying these wrong, uninformed things? I think one answer here is that Lieberman isn’t actually all that smart.”

I suspect that Lieberman is the beneficiary, or possibly the victim, of a cultural stereotype that Jews are smart and good with numbers. Trust me, it’s not true.

Bang! Zoom!

Which brings us back to Brooklyn in the spring of 1991. Freshman Senator Lieberman was the guest of honor at the annual dinner of the Council of Jewish Organizations of Borough Park, the neighborhood that’s home to the nation’s largest concentration of Haredi Jews, as many as 200,000. The council, dominated by the Ger Hasidic sect, was presenting Lieberman with its man-of-the-year award to honor his role in winning Senate approval, in defiance of his fellow Democrats, for the Gulf War in January that had driven invading Iraqi troops out of Kuwait.

Clearly moved as he accepted the award, Lieberman looked up and down the long dais of bearded, black-garbed rabbis before thanking them. It was a rare and special honor, he said, to be receiving this honor here in Borough Park, the epicenter of American Orthodoxy. Growing up in the small Orthodox community of Hartford, he said, “You people were my rebbeyim, my teachers. You were the ones who taught me the meaning of Torah, of hesed.” The rabbis beamed at him and at each other and nodded approvingly.

“You taught me the meaning of Torah u-Madda,” he continued — and at this moment the rabbis jerked as one to attention and stared at him in bewilderment. Torah u-Madda, “Torah and secular knowledge,” is the motto of Yeshiva University, the uptown bastion of Modern Orthodoxy. For at least 60 years the phrase has served as the rallying cry of Modern Orthodox Jews to distinguish themselves from the more cloistered, restrictive outlook of the Haredi traditionalists centered in Borough Park. Nothing was said, and the senator spoke on, oblivious. But his hosts’ looks at that moment said it all: He doesn’t know this? What else doesn’t he know?

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