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12.19.10

Joe Lieberman's Civil-Rights Coup

The left may still hate his hawkish politics, but the independent's lead role in repealing 'don't ask, don’t tell' earned him respect. Howard Kurtz talks to Lieberman about what drove his vote.

The left may still hate his hawkish politics, but the independent’s lead role in repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ earned him respect. Howard Kurtz talks to Lieberman about what drove his vote.

For the senator most reviled by much of the left, it was the chance to deliver an elusive victory on a cause long embraced by liberals.

Joe Lieberman, the exiled Democrat, worked tirelessly in rounding up enough votes for the Senate to repeal the don’t ask don’t tell policy in a rare Saturday session.

You could practically hear some lefties swallowing hard in giving grudging credit to a man who lost his Democratic primary in Connecticut four years ago, only to win as an independent, speak at the 2008 GOP convention and nearly wind up as John McCain’s running mate.

“I know a lot of people on the left were angry with me on the Iraq war, on the public option,” Lieberman told me. “There’s nothing inconsistent in my saying I’m going to break my butt—excuse me, my back—in trying to pass climate change legislation and repeal don’t ask don’t tell.

“In our time, people want to put you in a box. The liberal box, the conservative box, the Democratic box, the Republican box. Most people in the country don’t fit into a box, so why should I?”

Partisans, however, have long memories—although with eight Republicans joining the Democrats to overturn the military’s ban on gays serving openly, the issue ultimately transcended party lines.

Andrew Sullivan, the gay Atlantic blogger who has championed repeal of DADT, dubbed Lieberman a “civil rights hero.” But Alex Pareene, a liberal blogger for Salon, declared that “ it’s still OK to hate Joe Lieberman”—the “single most annoying man in the United States Senate”—because he remains a “sanctimonious troll.”

Linda Hirshman: The Soldiers Who Ended Don't Ask Don't TellLieberman says he doesn’t know whether the battle will help him politically, and his relationship with home-state Democrats may have deteriorated beyond repair. A Quinnipiac poll last January gave him a 27 percent approval rating among Democrats, and several Dems are weighing a primary challenge for 2012. Lieberman’s long-winded preachy style can sound grating to those who disagree with him. But for those who believe that keeping gay soldiers in the closet was a national disgrace, his appeals for equality sounded eloquent.

“Most people in the country don’t fit into a box,” Lieberman says, “so why should I?”

When I asked Lieberman why he felt so strongly about the issue—he co-sponsored a gay rights bill as a Connecticut legislator in the 1970s—he went on for a bit quoting the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence. But then he turned more personal:

“I’m a Jewish-American,” he said, “a member of a minority group raised from the earliest part of my life to be deeply grateful for all the rights and opportunities and freedom afforded Americans.”

Growing up in Stamford, he said, “I had no real awareness of anyone who was gay.” He met some gays at Yale, “but they were still really covert.” He recalls learning that a “wonderful teacher” of one of his children was gay, and over the years, “as I was meeting with gay rights groups, all of their stories were in my mind.”

Lieberman has always had a strong moralistic streak. In the 1980s, he teamed up with former Reagan aide William Bennett to denounce the entertainment industry for cultural pollution. In 1998 he expressed his “deep disappointment and personal anger” in chastising Bill Clinton on the Senate floor for the infamous affair with Monica Lewinsky. That helped land him a spot on Al Gore’s ticket. Joe and Hadassah seemed a refreshingly human presence in the 2000 campaign—and would have wound up in the vice president’s mansion if not for the Florida recount.

Four years later, Lieberman made his own run for president and, despite his declarations of “Joe-mentum,” was an utter flop. His strong support for George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion didn’t help with a liberal primary electorate. Thus it was that Ned Lamont knocked him off in the 2006 primary—which seemed to end Lieberman’s career until he went the independent route and hung onto his seat.

At times, Lieberman has seemed to rub it in the face of his old party, most notably when he criticized Barack Obama and touted McCain during the GOP convention in St. Paul. It was now strange, Lieberman conceded, to be opposing McCain—who was vociferous in his argument that abolishing the ban would hurt the military’s cohesiveness—“not only where we had a different opinion, but where each one of us was the most outspoken for our side of the argument. That’s the nature of life and friendship.”

Repeal seemed dead last Thursday, when the Democratic tactic of inserting the provision in a defense authorization bill failed to attract the requisite 60 votes. Lieberman told Susan Collins, the Maine Republican conspiring with him, that they should immediately announce they would push a stand-alone bill.

While Lieberman caucuses with the Democrats, his independent status helped him in reaching out to the other party, and he and Collins got two other GOP senators to pledge their support. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was skeptical about scheduling a vote, asking Lieberman: “Are you sure you have those three Republicans?”

Reid had one last request, as Lieberman recalls it: “Joe, please go back and tell them I can’t allow amendments on this.” That would lead to procedural snafus, and the pre-Christmas clock would run out.

As the vote approached, Lieberman began to feel that more than military policy was at stake, that “a statement would be made here that there was broader societal acceptance of people regardless of sexual orientation.”

The climactic vote took place on Sabbath, when Lieberman, who is Orthodox, generally does not work. He walked to the Senate from his home, since driving is forbidden, convinced he was serving his constituents on a national security issue. “It felt okay to be here,” he said.

Most politicians try to project a cool professionalism, but in our conversation Lieberman made no attempt to hide his elation. “It was one of those thrilling legislative victories,” he said, “where you feel like you’ve actually done something.”

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.