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August 12, 2000
Column #989

Joe Lieberman: A Righteous Jew

     I first met Sen. Joe Lieberman when he was a Yale sophomore and I was a Duke senior, working as a cub reporter for ''The Stamford Advocate'' in the summer of 1961. He recruited me and 50 other college students to tutor 100 black, inner city youth, something then unheard of.

     Joe had joined the NAACP at Yale because he thought race relations were ''the most important issue in the country.'' He asked why only about one percent of Yale students were Negro, and found out that few had applied. In Stamford, he asked questions at inner city churches, concluding ''The kids did not have anyone to look up to.''

     Joe did not plan to go into teaching, but law and ''maybe politics.'' However, he said, ''We can teach these kids, if nothing else, that education really means something. They see us as people who have made it people who are only a few years older.''

     He was inspirational and such a pioneer that I was moved to write my first by-lined story about his no-name, teach anyone-anything school. It was so unprecedented, AP picked up the story and sent it out nationally. Few noticed. Those were the tense days of the Berlin Airlift.

     This week, his four decades of quiet, principled leadership paid off as he was asked by Al Gore to run as his Vice President.

     What most attracted attention was the fact he was the first Jew to be nominated for such a high office. What's more, he is a rare observant, modern Orthodox Jew for whom the Sabbath is holy. About half of the nation's 6 million Jews are not religious. Of those who are, 42 percent are Reform Jews, very liberal in their reading of the Torah, 38 percent are Conservative, or middle-of-the-road, and only 7 percent are Orthodox, who obey all 600 laws of Scripture.

     Only a quarter of the Orthodox wear the black hats and garb as a way to separate themselves from the modern culture, something like the Amish. But modern Orthodox will refuse to ride in cars or to work on Saturday. They walk to the synagogue.

     Joe has shunned campaigning or purely political activities on Saturday. He declined to attend the Democratic convention that nominated him in 1988 for the U.S. Senate, but sent a videotape of an acceptance speech! He has avoided most Saturday sessions of the Senate, but has voted 75 times on the Sabbath on important matters of health or life, such as whether to enter the Persian Gulf War. He and Al Gore were two of only 10 Democratic Senators voting yes. On such occasions, he walks from his Georgetown home to the Senate, four miles away.

     In his most famous speech, Joe denounced President Clinton over the Lewinsky scandal, though Clinton had been a friend since 1970, who helped him campaign for the state senate. When the President acknowledged having an ''inappropriate'' sexual relationship with Monica, Joe said, ''Such behavior is not just inappropriate, it is immoral. And it is harmful for it sends a message of what is acceptable behavior'' to our children. ''Something very sad and sordid has happened in American life when I cannot watch the news on television with my 10-year-old daughter.''

     Even worse was Clinton's premeditated ''deception'' that ''undercut the efforts of millions of American parents who are naturally trying to instill in our children the value of honesty.''

     Yet ultimately, he said the misconduct ''does not justify making him the first president to be ousted from office.'' That vote was political and hypocritical.

     Joe has taken conservative positions that make him the Republican's favorite Democrat, such as supporting tuition vouchers that would give parents public subsidies to attend parochial schools. He voted to install electronic devices that permit the blocking of TV programs parents find offensive. He and former Education Secretary William Bennett have handed out ''Silver Sewer Awards'' to the producers of sexually explicit and violent films, music, TV, and video games. However, critics note he owned stock in some of those companies.

     Far more questionable are his votes in favor of partial birth abortion, virtual infanticide.  ''We agree with the prolife position,'' said Orthodox Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University. ''Abortion on demand is wrong. It is permissible or mandated if there is a threat to the life of the mother, and if it is within 40 days of conception. The attitude Lieberman has taken is wrong.''

     But Lamm was proud of Joe's denunciation of Clinton. ''He became the prophet standing up to the high and mighty, like Nathan scolded King David for an ethical infraction.''

     I predict that one day Joe Lieberman will run for president, and be elected.

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.

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