Sen. Joe Lieberman, National Treasure

Former Sen. Joe Lieberman departs the White House after meeting with then-President Donald Trump on May 17, 2017. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Many of the remembrances of Sen. Joe Lieberman, who passed away last week, have highlighted his legacy as one of the great post-Cold War statesmen or the fact he was the first Jewish-American to be nominated by a major political party as vice president of the United States.

Those career achievements are worth celebrating, to be sure. But what made the senator truly exceptional was his sheer humanity—his civility, grace, wisdom, love of family, and ability to convey his beliefs in a calm manner no matter the complexity of the issue at hand or the difficulty of the personalities involved.

Just look at the list of those who attended his funeral last Friday: Vice President Al Gore, various senators, scores of former staffers, a raft of onetime colleagues in Connecticut state politics, and Gov. Ned Lamont, his onetime political opponent. What all these people have in common—besides fiercely opposing Sen. Lieberman on one issue or another during his long career—is their profound and enduring respect for the man whose memory they were there to celebrate. The speakers who eulogized the late senator on Friday were remarkably consistent: They spoke of a man they deeply admired and respected. 

Sen. Lieberman was never afraid to voice his opposition to any policy or action with which he strongly disagreed. But in his principled advocacy of any issue, he expressed his dissent with elegance, wisdom, and wit. No major recent figure so plainly rejected the animus and bile that seems to consume modern American politics. He seemed immune from the piques of anger or outrage that flare up among even the best of the rest of us.

I first got to know the senator as a political foe in the infamous Florida recount that determined the outcome of the 2000 U.S. presidential election. He was well aware of my role as a bit player on behalf of then-Gov. George W. Bush in election offices, television interviews, and courtrooms, and although he was known for his sense of humor, I always felt a bit sheepish whenever he occasionally teased me about my role in the recount. I remain proud to have worked for President Bush and I don’t regret the outcome, but I was cognizant that the recount derailed my close friend’s historic bid for the second-highest office in the land. The last time he joked with me about the recount, he sensed my discomfort. You know, Mark, don’t fret too much about this whole recount business, he told me. If we had won Tennessee, the outcome of Florida wouldn’t have mattered one bit. Only upon his death did I learn that he had wanted me to be a pallbearer at his funeral. I was honored by the request and, while carrying out my duties on Friday, was struck that the extraordinary generosity of his character persisted beyond his tragic and untimely death.

My friendship with the senator developed further when I had the privilege of working for his friend and colleague, Sen. John McCain. McCain’s wit was second to none in politics, and his “borscht belt” jokes with Sen. Lieberman, often at his colleague from Connecticut’s expense, were legion. McCain used to joke that it was now time to fully convert to Judaism, having gone through so many Jewish experiences with his friend. Sen. Lieberman’s equally wry response was always to remind McCain that a bris was an essential element of Jewish conversion.

McCain, like Sen. Lieberman, was a great storyteller and capable of serious reflection. Before the vice presidential selection process and the start of the Republican National Convention in 2008, I was with McCain at his cabin in Sedona, doing my best to assist at his famous barbecue—or at least not get in the way. The conversation eventually turned to our mutual friend, and McCain stopped the stream of his political commentary and grew quiet. “Joe is good,” he said simply. “He is just good.”

Even when McCain passed over Sen. Lieberman for the vice presidential nomination in the heat of the campaign, the senator from Connecticut did not hesitate to assist Sarah Palin as she stepped onto the national stage. I will never forget the mock debate where Sen. Lieberman played the part of then-Vice President Joe Biden while I played the late, great Gwen Ifill. It was a particularly challenging moment in the campaign, with Palin facing the full brunt of media scrutiny. I saw first-hand the care, concern, and empathy with which Sen. Lieberman embraced the governor and talked her through the context of that difficult time. In that moment, they weren’t a senator and a governor, nor even two vice presidential nominees. They were just two people talking.

The selflessness and humility he displayed toward Palin were typical of Sen. Lieberman. In a world where success has a thousand authors, he stood out for his belief that service and good work were enough, and that credit was of little importance. In 2018, Sen. Lieberman and I convened a secret meeting—in our capacities as chairman and CEO of United Against Nuclear Iran, respectively—of Arab and Israeli intelligence chiefs and high-ranking members of the Trump administration. The first-of-its-kind meeting focused on cooperation on security and stability in the region, and it led to additional discussions that ultimately culminated in the Abraham Accords.

That first meeting hosted by Sen. Lieberman and UANI has never been publicly disclosed. The senator was proud to play a role in helping normalize relations between Arabs and Jews, but he was adamant that those who coordinated subsequent meetings deserved the credit. In his mind, the work itself was reward enough—claiming public authorship was unnecessary. And at the risk of treading on that sensibility, I mention this extraordinary and historic example of his devotion to service and repairing the world, because its significance was at least matched by his unparalleled selflessness.

Despite Sen. Lieberman’s insistence on being referred to as “Joe,” I couldn’t help but address him as “the senator.” He exemplified what it meant to be a great public servant, and that is how I will always remember him. Whenever I had the privilege of introducing him, I’d always conclude with an inside joke between us, identifying him as “the national treasure, Sen. Joseph Lieberman.” 

“Mark, you’ve gotta save that for my funeral,” he’d retort, always sparking some laughter from the audience. And if he were here to respond to the outpouring of kind words that have been heaped upon him following his passing, I’m sure he’d say something like, “Mark, couldn’t you have waited a little longer to use that line—like 10 years?!”

As I reflect on Sen. Lieberman’s life, I can’t help but be terribly sad. As long as I’d known him, my friend, the senator, was always there whenever I was unsure of what to say or think. We coauthored so many statements, op-eds, letters, and posts together, and he had a unique gift for finding the right words to match any feeling or emotion. Having the senator by my side was one of life’s greatest gifts, and I know I’m not alone in feeling profoundly touched by him.

Ultimately, his family provided his bedrock. His wife, Hadassah, was truly his partner in caring, wisdom, kindness, and generosity. The senator and Hadassah were a team, and she was his essential person in all that they accomplished together. His love for her, his children, and his grandchildren knew no bounds.

Sen. Joe Lieberman was our national treasure, but to many of us, he was so much more. He gave his country so much, and his country will miss him. So will I.

Comments (15)
Join The Dispatch to participate in the comments.