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Jewish World Review August 10, 2000 / 9 Menachem-Av, 5760

George Will

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Consumer Reports

The Thinking Person's Choice -- After the 1960 election, President-elect John Kennedy repaired to the family estate in Palm Beach to begin assembling a government. He met there with Connecticut Gov. Abraham Ribicoff. Kennedy offered him the position of attorney general. Ribicoff declined, saying America was not ready for a Jew in that position, particularly with a civil rights crisis simmering. He instead became secretary of health, education and welfare. Robert Kennedy became attorney general, with radiating consequences. Forty years on, Ribicoff's worry seems anachronistic to the point of unintelligibility.

Al Gore's wise and tough-minded selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman looks like a response to George W. Bush's selection of Dick Cheney, and to the Republican convention. Lieberman, like Cheney, is a practicing grown-up--the thinking person's choice. And the convention repeatedly tapped into Clinton fatigue--the national longing, which Gore's polling and Hillary Clinton's difficulties probably confirm, for "them to go." The convention's recurring subtext was that election of Gore would represent a third chance for Clinton because one cannot see one "without thinking of the other." Selecting Lieberman is Gore's way of seeking hygiene-by-association: Gore is associating himself with one of the few Democrats who denounced Clinton's behavior early and with unfeigned revulsion.

Of the six reportedly on Gore's short list of potential running mates, Lieberman is much the best choice, considering not just near-term politics but also long-term statecraft.

Sen. John Kerry would have come to the ticket trailing clouds of Massachusetts liberalism. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt would have made a ticket soggy with Washington careerism. North Carolina's freshman Sen. John Edwards, now in just his 20th month in elective office, is a trial lawyer, a profession tellingly generous to, because increasingly parasitic on, the Democratic Party. Indiana's freshman Sen. Evan Bayh, a former two-term governor, is, like Gore, a son of Washington's St. Albans private school and of a senator. Selection of New Hampshire's first-term Gov. Jeanne Shaheen would, fairly or not, have seemed as desperate as Walter Mondale's selection of Geraldine Ferarro.

The fact that the Democratic Party has a thin bench, and hence Lieberman, like the tallest building in Topeka, stands out against a flat horizon, does not mean he is not outstanding. He is a cultural conservative ("We in government should look to religion as a partner, as I think the founders of our country did") not afraid to collaborate with Bill Bennett in excoriating Hollywood purveyors of "trash" (Lieberman's word). Lieberman favored the 1996 welfare reform and a capital gains tax cut for small business. He has been one of the few Democrats willing to support experiments with school-choice voucher programs. Like Gore, he is one of only 10 Democrats who voted in favor of the use of force in Desert Storm.

Lieberman's devoutness (he did not attend the 1988 Connecticut convention that nominated him for the Senate because it met on Saturday) is emblematic of an American exceptionalism. It used to be axiomatic that modernity--urbanization, the rise of professions, the spread of bureaucracy and the general rationalization of society--advances in tandem with secularization. Yet America, the first modern nation, and still the most modern, is also much the most religious of all modern nations.

Indeed, Wilfred M. McClay of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga writes in WQ (the quarterly published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars) that since the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976, public officials have become decreasingly reticent about their religious sentiments, to the point that G-d and Christ are invoked more than at any time since William Jennings Bryan was campaigning a century ago. And, McClay writes, there is "a growing sense that religion may be an indispensable force for the upholding of human dignity and moral order in a world dominated by voracious state bureaucracies and sprawling transnational corporations that are neither effectively accountable to national law nor effectively answerable to well-established codes of behavior."

The first professing Jew elected to the Senate was Judah Benjamin (elected 1852, reelected 1858), who also was the first Jew to hold a Cabinet-level office in a (sort of) American government--he was attorney general, then secretary of war, then secretary of state for the Confederacy. Barry Goldwater had a Jewish grandfather, prompting the Jewish humorist Harry Golden to say that he always knew that the first Jewish president would be an Episcopalian.

Of course Lieberman is really the first Jew on a national ticket, and he will leaven national politics with a welcome variant of the nation's remarkably rich and durable religious sensibility.

Comment on JWR contributor George Will's column by clicking here.


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