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Joe Lieberman, Former Veep Candidate and Longtime Connecticut Senator, Dies at 82

Gilles Sabrié for the Washington Post via Getty Images
Gilles Sabrié for the Washington Post via Getty Images

Joe Lieberman, the independent-minded politician who served as a U.S. senator from Connecticut for nearly a quarter of a century and ran on the Democratic ticket alongside Al Gore in 2000, died on Wednesday in New York City. He was 82.

His family, who confirmed his death in a statement to The Washington Post, said the cause was complications from a fall.

“His beloved wife, Hadassah, and members of his family were with him when he passed,” the statement said. “Senator Lieberman’s love of God, his family and America endured throughout his life of service in the public interest.”

A four-term senator who held office from 1989 to 2013, Lieberman was a maverick who was just as likely to rankle an ally as he was to win the respect of a critic. As vocal a supporter of abortion rights as he was the Iraq War, Lieberman swung back and forth across the political spectrum.

“I am genuinely an independent,” he told Fox host Chris Wallace in 2007. “I agree more often than not with Democrats on domestic policy. I agree more often than not with Republicans on foreign and defense policy.”

That was certainly the case in 1998, when Lieberman was the first major Democrat to publicly rebuke then-President Bill Clinton—an old friend—for his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Speaking from the Senate floor, he called Clinton’s behavior “not just inappropriate,” but “immoral.” (He would later vote against Clinton’s impeachment.)

He was tapped by Gore as a running mate in the 2000 presidential election. The pair won the popular vote but ultimately lost the election to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney after the U.S. Supreme Count intervened, ending a recount in the state of Florida. Still, they made history: Lieberman was the first Jewish candidate to run on a major party’s ticket.

Gore remembered his former running mate in a heartfelt statement Wednesday, saying “it was an honor to stand side-by-side with him on the campaign trail.”

“He was a truly gifted leader, whose affable personality and strong will made him a force to be reckoned with,” Gore added. “That’s why it came as no surprise to any of us who knew him when he’d start singing his favorite song: Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”. And doing things Joe’s way meant always putting his country and the values of equality and fairness first.”

In 2004, he aimed even higher, running for the Democratic nomination for president. This time, he lost out to then-Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Two years later, Lieberman’s political career seemed to have reached its final stanza. He lost the Democratic primary for the Senate in Connecticut—largely over his still-hawkish stance towards Iraq, he believed. But he switched to become a third-party independent and staged an unlikely comeback, winning re-election to his fourth term in the chamber.

Ned Lamont, who won the primary race over Lieberman but ultimately lost to him in the general election, said in a statement that he believed his onetime rival to have been a man of integrity and conviction.

“I believe we agreed to disagree from a position of principle,” Lamont said. “When the race was over, we stayed in touch as friends in the best traditions of American democracy. He will be missed.”

Then-Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore hugs his wife, Tipper, as his running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, speaks at a 2000 campaign rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Then-Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore hugs his wife, Tipper, as his running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, speaks at a 2000 campaign rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Reuters

Though he was increasingly alienated from his Democratic colleagues, Lieberman continued to enjoy power in the Senate. In 2008, he endorsed John McCain for the presidency. It led furious Connecticut Democrats to stuff his portrait into a closet at party headquarters, and a delighted McCain to consider naming him to be his running mate. Advised that Lieberman’s Democratic credentials would doom their ticket, however, McCain went with Sarah Palin instead.

But McCain was still defeated—by Barack Obama, a candidate that Lieberman had openly opposed, needling him at the Republican National Convention that year with the taunt “eloquence is no substitute for a record.”

The Connecticut senator later reversed course on Obama, praising him in the early days of his presidency as a “real” leader who was “off to a very good start.” But Lieberman had cooled on his old party again a few months later, when he worked to kill the public option in Obama’s Affordable Care Act, all but ending hopes for universal health care.

“I stepped out on it because I felt strongly about it,” Lieberman said in 2021, according to The Intercept. But at least one Capitol Hill watcher at the time observed that it appeared to be a classic case of “tit-for-tat revenge.”

Throughout his life, Lieberman was a staunch supporter of Israel, backing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as late as this month. In the pages of The Wall Street Journal, he accused Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of “catering to those who are hostile to the Jewish state” for calling for new elections in Israel.

Netanyahu was among those paying tribute to Lieberman on Wednesday.

“Joe was an exemplary public servant, an American patriot and a matchless champion of the Jewish people and the Jewish state,” he tweeted, praising him for “his integrity, decency and civic courage.

“He had a deep moral sense and common sense and was fearless in the defense of truth,” Netanyahu added.

After departing the Senate, ever the contrarian, Lieberman joined a conservative think tank. But, in a move that would come to define his final years, he also became the founding chairman of the political organization No Labels.

Joe Lieberman Called Chinese Telecom Giant ZTE a National Security Threat. Now He’s a Lobbyist for It.

Originally started as a no-nonsense effort to encourage legislators and voters to look beyond partisanship, the centrist nonprofit attracted criticism after announcing its intentions to mount a third-party presidential campaign in 2024.

In an op-ed for The Hill last week, former Watergate prosecutor Richard J. Davis said No Labels had become “a victim of its own arrogance” and warned that its bid could hand Donald Trump a second term. Lieberman admitted earlier this month that they’d been struggling to attract a viable candidate to their so-called “unity ticket.”

In a statement, No Labels told The Daily Beast that Lieberman had believed “passionately” in the organization’s goals, and brought “his wisdom and counsel as well as his kindness and humor” to their work. His death marked a profound loss “for all of us,” it said.

“He was a man of uncommon integrity who did the right things for the right reasons,” the group added. “As American politics became progressively coarser and angrier, Senator Lieberman was unfailingly civil and decent to political allies and opponents alike.”

A funeral service for Lieberman is set to held on Friday in his hometown of Stamford.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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