Joe Lieberman retired from the Senate yesterday, speaking to a nearly empty chamber, and it reminded me of the time that I never met him.
I had served for a decade in region of small Connecticut towns with ties to Lieberman. Family members of his had been members of the congregation, and prominent politicians and wealthy donors lived in the area. For many years I had helped lead an interfaith Bible study in tony Essex Connecticut, and I had become fond of the many wealthy, Episcopalian ladies who regularly attended.
When I announced that I was leaving for a pulpit in Chicago, a group of these ladies gathered to make me a farewell luncheon. Because I genuinely liked these devoted and kind women, I was truly touched by their gesture.
On the day of the luncheon, they presented me with a letter from Lieberman, (no doubt written by a staffer) offering his good wishes on my move to Chicago. The ladies were genuinely puzzled, however, that the Senator himself did not show up. “We don’t understand”, they said, “After all, he is Jewish, and you are a very nice rabbi from Essex, Connecticut.” I smiled and nodded and thanked them, although I knew full well why he didn’t show up. Lieberman by then had begun to think of himself as a national figure, and he had no need to pay respects to a very lowly small-town rabbi like me.
Those who knew Lieberman in Connecticut always realized that he was a person with grand ambition. A nasty and unsubstantiated rumor that floated around New Haven had it that he married his first wife to gain money for his political career, and then, once it was off and running, divorced her. I could care less about his personal life- I always thought that he was a man with genuine principles and compassion who abandoned them totally for the sake of his political career. He could have been another “lion of the Senate” -fighting for the just cause-instead he embraced the worst impulses of the early part of this century and threw away his credibility to gain favor with the adminstration of George W Bush. The tragedy of Joe Lieberman was that he landed on the wrong side of history and never reached his potential. The nice Essex ladies were right-the real Joe Lieberman should have showed up.