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Updated: March 28, 2024

UPDATED: Joe Lieberman, former U.S. Senator and VP candidate, has died

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CT MIRROR Former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., pictured earlier this month. Lieberman died Wednesday, March 27.

Joseph I. Lieberman, the Connecticut senator who approached the pinnacle of Democratic politics as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000 only to be driven from the party six years later over his support for the invasion of Iraq ordered by the Republican who beat them, died Wednesday. He was 82.

Lieberman, who had been working to find a candidate to lead a presidential ticket for the No Labels movement he served as a founding chairman, died in a New York City hospital after a fall Tuesday, a family spokesman said. His wife Hadassah and family members were with him.

He won his fourth and final term as a U.S. senator from Connecticut as an independent in 2006 after losing a Democratic primary to Ned Lamont that was dominated by Lieberman’s unflinching support for a war President George W. Bush launched on the basis of false intelligence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

The loss, in Lieberman’s telling, led to his rebirth outside any party. He remained a member of the Democratic caucus in the Senate but endorsed and campaigned for John McCain against Barack Obama in 2008, culminating in Lieberman’s primetime address to the Republican National Convention.

In a recent interview with The Connecticut Mirror, one of two planned shortly before his death, Lieberman insisted that a third-party ticket could compete against President Joe Biden and former President Donald J. Trump — even though No Labels had yet to find a candidate.

“It’s a daunting decision for somebody to step out there and do this, even though our polling and public polling shows that there is a majority that doesn’t want to have to make the Trump-Biden choice again. That really has turned against the two major parties in larger numbers than ever in recorded history in our country, as far as we know,” Lieberman said.

On a ticket led by Gore, Lieberman was the first Jewish nominee for vice president. Lieberman might have been the VP nominee again in 2008 on a fusion ticket led by the Republican from Arizona, but McCain chose a conservative firebrand Sarah Palin.

While a foreign policy hawk, Lieberman’s support for abortion rights, gay rights and a desire to address climate change would have made him unacceptable to the GOP as McCain’s running mate. In a book and documentary, both called “The Restless Wave,” McCain acknowledged that reality.

“It was sound advice that I could reason for myself,” McCain said. “But my gut told me to ignore it, and I wish I had.”

Lieberman did not seek a fifth term to the U.S. Senate in 2012, announcing his retirement in Stamford, where he grew up in modest circumstances in an Orthodox Jewish family. He announced his decision in a crowded conference room in a Marriott that he said was built in an urban renewal project near the spot where he lived with his family in a cold-water flat until he was 8 years old.

“I know that some people have said that if I ran for reelection, it would be a difficult campaign for me. But what else is new?” Lieberman said then, holding his hands out in a half-shrug. “It probably would be.”

He mentioned his four grandparents, all immigrants.

“They came to America hoping for opportunity, and they got it,” he said. “But even they could not have dreamed that their grandson would end up as a U.S. senator and a barrier-breaking candidate for vice president.”

Joseph Isadore Lieberman was born in Stamford on Feb. 24, 1942.

His political base would become New Haven, where he entered Yale University in 1960. His senior thesis was on John M. Bailey, the Irish-Catholic boss who dominated state politics and was an early and key backer of John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president. Bailey also backed Abraham Ribicoff as Connecticut’s first Jewish governor.

Lieberman turned the thesis into a Bailey biography, “The Power Broker.”

Lieberman was elected to the state Senate in 1970, when one of his volunteers was a Yale law student, Bill Clinton. He would serve a decade in the Senate, six as its majority leader. He lost a race for an open congressional seat in 1980 to Lawrence DeNardis, a moderate Republican.

Lieberman’s comeback came two years later, when he was elected as Connecticut’s first full-time attorney general. In 1988, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, running to the right of Republican Lowell P. Weicker Jr., a three-term senator. (Weicker would be elected as governor two years later as an independent.)

In 2006, Lamont opposed Lieberman over the war in Iraq with Weicker’s blessing. Lamont, running largely as a self-funded candidate, won the Democratic primary, but Lieberman had taken an insurance policy: petitioning for a line on the November ballot as an independent.

With the support of some prominent Republicans, Lieberman won his fourth and final term. On health care reform, Lieberman had both undercut and supported Obama in that last term, delivering a fatal blow to the public option sought by the president and many other Democrats, then helping salvage the amended bill with his vote. 

“Even if we don’t always see eye to eye, I always know Joe is coming from a place of principle,” President Obama said after Lieberman announced his retirement. “I know he will carry with him that integrity and dedication to his remaining work in the Senate and to whatever he chooses to do next.”

No Labels became a focus in recent years as Lieberman bemoaned the inability of the parties to govern from the center. With a smile, he acknowledged that his old nemesis, Lamont, has shown a centrist streak as governor of Connecticut.

“I actually have a smile, but I’ve been encouraged and appreciative of Gov. Lamont’s leadership in that regard, because in some ways he has been a more effective centrist than perhaps I would have guessed when he ran,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman had spoken to CT Mirror via Zoom from his home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, N.Y., where he and his wife relocated to be close to children and grandchildren. Lamont and Lieberman last saw each other at the annual Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington.

“Annie and I send our deepest condolences to Hadassah and the Lieberman family,” Lamont said in a statement. “While the senator and I had our political differences, he was a man of integrity and conviction, so our debate about the Iraq War was serious. I believe we agreed to disagree from a position of principle. When the race was over, we stayed in touch as friends in the best traditions of American democracy. He will be missed.”

Dannel P. Malloy, the former governor and mayor of Stamford, praised Lieberman as someone who fought for people who, at the time, lacked for public advocates. He was an earlier and stronger advocate for gay rights than Clinton and Obama at times.

“I knew him for a long time, liked him very much, and respected his civility and decency — even when we disagreed, which we sometimes did,” Malloy said. “The thing I’ll remember most about Joe was that he was a kind, down-to-earth person who never forgot where he came from, even when he made history as the first Jewish vice-presidential nominee of a major political party.”

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who succeeded Lieberman at Connecticut’s attorney general, said he saw Lieberman a few weeks ago at a conference in Munich.

“Joe Lieberman was my friend for over 50 years,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “On world and national stages, he helped to define and frame an era of history. He was a fierce advocate, a man of deep conscience and conviction, and a courageous leader who sought to bridge gaps and bring people together. He was dedicated to family and faith, and he was a role model of public service. He never ceased listening to both friends and adversaries.”

Those friends were urging him to stand down as a backer of No Labels, and Lieberman had told CT Mirror he might ultimately listen.

“We’re not kidding ourselves,” Lieberman said. “A bipartisan ticket, a third party, has not won since Lincoln ran in 1860. And the last time a bipartisan ticket won was in 1864 when he asked Andrew Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee, to join him in a unity ticket. So that’s where we are.”

Lieberman insisted in the recent interview that his support for a No Labels ticket was predicated on being certain that it would not benefit Trump, whom he described as a continuing threat to the rule of law. But what polling possibly could offer that certainty?

Liz Cheney, the Republican who helped lead the House committee that investigated the Jan. 6 insurrection provoked by Trump, said at a recent appearance in Hartford that her own flirtations with a run for president were ended by the same concern: She would not run if it might benefit Trump.

“You would have to have 100% certainty,” Cheney said.

Lieberman had no ready answer to how such certainty could be obtained, nor could he say with confidence how the election  of a No Labels ticket would resolve the partisan dysfunction in Congress.

“It’s a real good question. There’s no question that if we put a  bipartisan unity ticket forward and, obviously, if it wins, it will be transformational in Washington,” Lieberman said. “You’ll have a bipartisan national leadership, a president and vice president working, together from both parties in the White House.”

Lieberman said that would liberate the “more centrist elements in both parties in Congress from the grip of the extremes of both parties.”

“But even if we don’t win — and we we pass our tests of not being spoilers, but we get a good solid vote nationally — we think it’s still a message,” Lieberman said. The message is “that the public — if somehow Congress didn’t get it before — wants them to stop fighting each other and start fixing America’s problems.”

Lieberman, of course, had direct experience with possible spoilers. The Gore-Lieberman ticket lost Florida by 537 votes of nearly 6 million cast, with Ralph Nader garnering 97,488 votes as the Green Party nominee. Conservative Patrick Buchanan drew 17,484 on the Reform Party line.

“I never was convinced that Nader made the difference in Florida, but strangely, perhaps, I was convinced that he made the difference in New Hampshire,” Lieberman said recently. “If we had carried New Hampshire, Al Gore and I would have been elected with New Hampshire’s electoral votes.”

Bush beat Gore in New Hampshire, 48% to 47%, with Nader getting nearly 4%.

But in 2024, Lieberman said, he sensed America was ready for a third party.

“Our members feel, and I think the country feels, that Trump and Biden don’t offer us a kind of liberation from the partisan gridlock politics of our time,” Lieberman said. “The campaign between them, as we can already see as it took shape after Super Tuesday, will be nasty, divisive. And I’m afraid whichever one of them is reelected, is elected, that offers little hope that the mood in Washington will change to impart collaborative politics in the public interest instead of more partisan dogfighting and little solving of problems.”

Lieberman said he admires Biden and considers him a friend.

“I wish that he would just leave the stage with the honor and dignity that he deserves, instead of facing a year in which everybody will be watching every word he says and every step he takes, some hoping that he stumbles, others worrying that he will stumble,” Lieberman said. “And that’s just an awful place to be at the end of a really great career of public service.”

“But if it’s Trump and Biden, for me, it’s an easy choice,” Lieberman said.

Trump’s attack on the rule of law and his false claims of a stolen election were unforgivable, he said. So the movement would not go forward with a ticket if polling showed Trump would be the beneficiary, Lieberman said.

“That is actually more serious than the long term fight against partisanship and ideological extremism that No Labels has been involved in,” Lieberman said. “So we’re going to be watching it closely before we make the final decision.”

He was to talk again to CT Mirror about his latest thinking about No Labels in an interview scheduled for Monday.

Lieberman’s funeral will be Friday at Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford. An additional memorial service will be announced at a later date, his family said.

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