ACT ONE: Joe Lieberman enjoyed a 40-year career in public service that included attorney general and the Senate in the state of Connecticut, the U.S. Senate and a run for Vice President of the United States.
ACT TWO: How do you follow an act one like that? In 2013 Joe Lieberman left the U.S. Senate behind. He loved the work he did as senator and felt privileged to do it, but it was important for him to change and to have at least one more chapter in his working life that was different from what preceded.
“When you leave the Senate, people think you’re retiring,” he explains. “I never really wanted to retire. I suppose I’m happy to slow down a little bit, but I’m the kind of person that wants to work as long as I’m physically and mentally able.” He feels really fortunate to have made the transition.
The Liebermans rent an apartment in New York City because three of their four children and seven of their 12 grandchildren live there. They wanted to spend more time with their family, and it’s working well. Lieberman has joined the law firm of Kasowitz, Benson, Torres and Friedman half-time, and the rest of the time he gives speeches and works on foreign policy and national security with different think tanks. He does TV appearances, writes op-eds and feels lucky to be enjoying life in a different way.
“It feels different, though. There’s a lot of travel built into political life. I enjoyed foreign travel and felt it was important in doing my job,” he says, “but a lot of the travel is raising money for your campaigns and I’m glad not to be doing that.” He finds it exciting just to be doing something different and finds the law practice and the think tank work stimulating.
Yes, he misses his friends in Congress and sometimes he wishes he were down there in the mix trying to make things happen, but he finds other ways to keep his voice in the discussion. “If you ask me to summarize it, what are my goals in my act two, it’s to continue to stay constructive and to feel that I’m doing things that matter,” he says.
“Incidentally,” he adds, “I never complained about the income of people in public life, but let me put it this way, it’s nice to be making a little more money for my family. It’s the inverse of most people. I’m lucky, most people when they go into their act two slow down a little bit and they’ve made more money in the past. Because I came out of public service, I have the opportunity to make a little more money now.”
Lieberman was raised in a religious family with an ethic that teaches that people have an obligation to try to make things better. He read a lot of history and biography in high school and college, and was influenced by the impact of leaders for good and bad over history. He was 18 in 1960, just going into college, when President Kennedy was elected. He was really moved by the inaugural address—“Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country,” and “America would pay any price and bear any burden to assure the sustenance and survival of liberty around the world.”
What followed was a career in public service where he won a lot more elections than he lost. Joe and Hadassah Lieberman have been married for 30 years and the strong bond between them is obvious to anyone that meets them—as well as a subtle twinkle in their eyes when they look at each other.
It’s the second marriage for both of them. They met on a blind date. There was a woman in the synagogue that Lieberman went to in New Haven who was a roommate of Hadassah’s at college. She gave Hadassah’s name and number to Lieberman. He laughs and says, “I’ll never forget that piece of paper. Hadassah lived in New York and the piece of paper she gave me had her name and number and the words ‘she’s worth the trip to New York.’ Well, she was, and so I called and went down and we began to date and I must say it really was love at first sight for me. I really did flip for her and I feel very lucky to have met her. There’s no question that the things that I’ve done in the more than 30 years that we’re married I couldn’t have done without her support.”
Hadassah describes a public life that’s not easy, one that puts additional strains on a marriage and a family. “We were committed to our personal lives, and our religious beliefs as observant Jews helped us. Every couple is different, but the reality of the Senate is constant voting at haphazard times.”
By the time you arrive at act two you’ve seen a lot of change. Lieberman describes a Congress that has changed a lot. In Connecticut, he worked really closely with the Republican leaders. They agreed that on partisan issues they couldn’t cooperate but that on the others, which were most of the issues, they would work together. He was surprised at how partisan the U.S. Congress was when he arrived in 1989. There wasn’t as much of that cooperation, but there was still a lot.
He remembers an incident as a member of the Environment Committee convened by Democratic Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell working with President Bush, 41. There was an ongoing negotiation to adopt amendments to the Clean Air Act. The process was difficult but not partisan at all, and they created a really strong bill. Over the years he watched Congress become more and more partisan, more ideologically rigid and less able to compromise—by which he means not compromising on personal principles but a kind of compromise that recognizes that not getting 100 percent of what you want, instead getting 50 percent or 70 percent is a pretty good deal.
“I will say that of my 24 years in the Senate, the last two were the most partisan, the most ideologically rigid, and therefore the least productive for me and for the whole Congress,” he says. “It’s not why I decided not to run again, but I will say that the partisanship and dysfunction of Congress made it easier for me to leave than it would have been otherwise.”
Lieberman doesn’t mince words when he describes an American public that has lost trust and confidence in government. “As the American people look forward, one of the things that makes them less optimistic than they have traditionally been is the lack of confidence in the national government and the disdain for the political nonsense that goes on there. It’s got to stop.”
Another change he describes in the country is values. He sees parents as being in competition with the entertainment culture and its messages about violence and sexuality. Two of the Lieberman’s children don’t have TV’s in their homes. He sees a need for parents to reassert control and “pull the plug,” which he recognizes is not easy.
One of the changes that Hadassah has seen since 9/11 is a lack of a “deep calm” in the country. If she were able to make one change in the country she says, “I would wish all mankind could feel an inner calm and have peaceful souls.”
So what about that dreaded topic of age? Lieberman is 74 years old. He feels good physically and mentally, but is aware that actuarially speaking he has fewer days left, so it gives him an extra measure of appreciation for every day. “You manage age,” he says. “You have to manage age and things are not as easy as they used to be. I have a bad knee and you have to learn how to deal with that, but those are pretty small problems compared to what might be. The ability to transition to a new chapter in life, really brand new, with a normal day that’s different from a normal day a year ago, is energizing and revitalizing. That makes me feel younger than my age tells me that I am.”
by Rosemary Cass