A Senator Who Loved to Kibitz

Say what you will about Joe Lieberman, the self-described “Independent Democrat” senator from Connecticut and onetime Democratic vice-presidential candidate. He was many things—honorable, devout, sanctimonious, maddening, and unfailingly warm and decent—all of which have been unpacked since his death yesterday, at 82. He elicited strong reactions, often from Democrats, over his various apostasies to liberal orthodoxy.

But what I’ll miss and remember most about Lieberman was that the man loved to kibitz. It is something of a lost art, at least the in-person version, which has largely given over to quippy faceless mediums (text messages, Twitter). This has been especially true in politics in recent years, as public figures have rightly become hypercautious—or paranoid—about saying anything that could become an instant viral disaster.

I’m thankful that most of my encounters with Lieberman came before social media made politicians so suspicious and scared. I ran into him periodically on various campaign trails and Capitol Hill until he concluded his 24-year run in the Senate, in early 2013. He was a first-rate teller of stories and jokes, which, for an observant Jew, could be jarringly bawdy at times.

A serious policy debate with Lieberman could veer sharply into a one-man Borscht Belt on the Potomac. I remember chatting with him during his final weeks in the Senate, in November 2012. It was a few days before that year’s election, between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Lieberman, in that infuriating (to Democrats) way of his, had declined to endorse either candidate.

This was no great surprise, given that he had endorsed his close friend, Republican John McCain, against Obama in 2008. Many Democrats had rid themselves of Lieberman, and the feeling was quite mutual. Connecticut Democrats had formalized the divorce in 2006, when they opted for liberal Ned Lamont over their incumbent senator in the primary before Lieberman managed to get reelected as an independent.

Lieberman told me that he had been invited to speak at both Obama’s and Romney’s conventions that summer. No thanks, he said. “I explained that I was taking a sabbatical from elective partisan politics,” Lieberman told me in his sonorous, almost prayerful tone. “And it might be a sabbatical that will go on for the rest of my life.”

That sounded final and a bit somber, but our chat rolled on in surprising and cheerful directions—the essence of a good kibitz. I had my tape recorder going. He didn’t mind. I asked Lieberman if he would still get to use the Senate gym after he departed Congress. He wasn’t sure, he said, adding that he’d set foot there only once, just after he was elected in 1988.

“Lo and behold, there was somebody getting a massage,” he told me. Lo and behold, it was the late Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, who, like Lieberman, had been a failed Democratic running mate. Was Bentsen dressed? I asked. “Let’s say he was covered in part,” Lieberman said.

“Here’s a parting gift,” he said to me to conclude our exchange. In my experience with Lieberman, that was usually a sign that he was ready to let loose a bit, sometimes after a few glasses of wine. Sure enough, he was:

“There’s an older guy on the park bench, crying—tell me if you’ve heard this one,” Lieberman said. Tell me if you’ve heard this one. You rarely hear those words anymore, especially from senators.

“Finally, a jogger stops, sees the guy sobbing,” Lieberman proceeded. “‘What’s wrong?’ ‘My wife of 48 years died, and I was very lonely. I went on Jdate and met a younger Russian woman. We liked each other. So she’s moved in with me, and she’s wonderful. She’s attractive, she cooks well, she takes care of me, and almost every night we have fabulous sex.’ So the jogger says: ‘Well, that’s a wonderful story. Why are you crying?’ The old guy says, ‘I’m crying because I can’t remember where I live.’”

Lieberman left me—and his legions of kibitzees—with an abundance of these parting gifts, which I have been recounting to myself since his death. He loved telling stories punctuated by belly laughs. He, in turn, was the subject of many stories himself, often on the theme of his Judaism—and often offered up by McCain, another kibitzer of the highest order.

“Funny story about Lieberman,” McCain said to me in 2013, when I was writing about him for The New York Times Magazine. He described an event where the Israeli ambassador in Washington had honored Lieberman after he left the Senate. “Everyone was saying Joe’s the most wonderful guy, the usual crap you hear,” McCain said. “So I got up—I was the last guy—and I say: ‘I’m here to announce that I’m converting to Judaism. Because for all these years with Joe, I’ve had to eat that crappy salmon. I had to ride the damn Shabbat elevator. I’ve observed Shabbat to a point where I couldn’t even ride in a goddamn car. I’ve had all of the bull associated with this religion, and I’ve gotten not a single benefit. So I’m converting to Judaism.’”

Lieberman got up and declared this provision to the room: In order to convert, McCain must first have a bris. As he finished his account, McCain was bent over in laughter, just as he had been when he’d told me the exact same story the week before.

Both Lieberman and McCain had an earthy wisdom born of their very different backgrounds: Lieberman was shaped by his deep Jewish faith, McCain by the five and a half years he spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. It allowed them to shrug off nuisances more easily, to cross boundaries (partisan and otherwise), and to see beyond the usual smallness of politics. They were social, rollicking beings who appreciated the fun of cavorting more than most.

Characters like this are missed in politics these days. May their memories be amusing.

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