In 1964 I read your editorials, written as chairman of the Yale Daily News from Mississippi, where you, a nice Jewish boy from Stamford, Conn., were risking your comfortable life (and indeed, perhaps your very life itself) in the great moral cause of our generation: ending segregation and winning civil rights for all black Americans.
In 1966, just two years out of college and still in Yale Law School, you ran for the New Haven Board of Aldermen. Now I was chairman of the Yale News. The leading Republican columnist on the editorial page, Victor H. Ashe, walked into my office and handed me his column for the next day — calling on you to take yourself out of the race because you could not serve since you weren’t a legal resident of New Haven long enough to qualify.
“You can’t write that,” I told Victor. “You are taking down my best friend on our editorial page.”
I called Joe and told him the situation. “No way — I’m not running the column,” I told Joe.
“Oh yes you are,” Joe said. “Victor is right — I just checked it out. And you’re the chairman of the oldest and best college daily newspaper in America — act like it.”
In 1970, I was in the bathroom with a towel over my ears. In the living room, surrounded by my parents and friends, there you were — the sandek at the bris — holding my 8-day-old son Seth for the 3,000-year-old Jewish ceremony while the rabbi made the magic cut. I awarded you the title of godfather for doing me (and Seth) that great favor.
In 2000, you stood at the podium as the vice presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, the first Jew to be so honored, and I sat next to your mother, both of us crying, as you began your acceptance speech, in genuine wonder and awe: “Is this a great country, or what?”
In 2006, you lost a Democratic primary in Connecticut because your liberal base wouldn’t forgive you because you genuinely believed a democratic Iraq without Saddam Hussein was worth going to war over. I disagreed with you on that position. But I also knew that you were and always would be a progressive Democrat — that you had voted over 90 percent of the time with your fellow Democratic senators.
On primary night, when you had lost, I stood heartbroken in your hotel suite in Hartford, Conn. My son and your godson, Seth, now 36 years since the magic cut, arrived.
“So sorry, Godfather,” Seth said.
“This is the business we are in,” you responded, in a Marlon Brando voice that, at a moment of sadness throughout the crowded room, brought the house down.
But you didn’t quit. You won as an Independent Democrat — a label that best exemplified your life in politics.
And then in 2011, you were the crucial progressive leader in the U.S. Senate who ended, once and for all, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Without you, DADT would probably still be with us. Yet most of the more vicious left of the Democratic Party who had been your severest critics over the years didn’t have the grace to thank you.
There is something especially sad that you, an important symbol of decency in politics, should pick this week to announce your retirement — the week after the murderous violence in Tucson, Ariz., left so many people in America frightened of the atmosphere of violence and polarization that has become the hallmark of our politics in too many places.
You will be missed, Sen. Lieberman — just at the time where the role of a “bridge-builder” between Democrats and Republicans, between liberals and conservatives, is needed more than ever.
You showed it is possible to be a genuine liberal Democrat on the major issues — but still be able to work with Republicans, with conservatives, and be trusted by them. You were the model “purple” politician.
You might not be in the U.S. Senate in 2013. But I know you will remain in public service for the public good. Because that is who you are. That is who you will always be.
Lanny J. Davis is principal in his own legal-strategic media-crisis management firm, Lanny J. Davis & Associates and partner in the strategic media consulting firm of Davis-Block LLC, is a former Special Counsel to President Clinton in 1996-98 and member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2006-07. Full disclosure: he loves Joe Lieberman as one of his best and oldest friends.