Joe Lieberman Transcript
Taped October 27, 2014
Table of Contents
KRISTOL: Hi, I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome back to CONVERSATIONS. And I’m very pleased today to have as our guest Senator Joe Lieberman. Thanks for joining us, Joe.
LIEBERMAN: Great to be with you, Bill. Thank you.
KRISTOL: And I’ve looked forward to discussing your long, distinguished, varied, interesting career in public life. Maybe I’ll begin by just asking you is there one moment that stands out? What’s the most when you wake up late at night, what’s the one moment, flashback moment that comes to you first when you think about that long and distinguished career?
LIEBERMAN: So, I’ve been lucky. I’ve had a lot of great moments. I mean I suppose the – when I got elected to the Senate in 1988 as an upset winner, that was a big moment. In 2006 after I lost the Democratic primary, ran as an Independent and won. That was really a thrilling moment, maybe the most thrilling.
But really the most memorable moment, I would say, would have to be the barrier-breaking opportunity that Al Gore gave me when he asked me to be his running mate in 2000 as Vice President, and then that whole campaign and then the remarkable aftermath of it. But it was – it was thrilling.
KRISTOL: I remember hearing about your pick. I was at a beach house. I remember it seems like very early in the morning the news broke; I did a radio interview, instant analysis. Knowing nothing, I, of course, was happy to pontificate about it. But I mean so how did it happen, how does a vice presidential pick – but afterwards, everyone said, “Oh, Gore-Lieberman, sure.” But it was a surprise at the time, as I recall. Was it a – to me, it was. It was to you?
LIEBERMAN: It was to me, too. I would say to make a long story short, once I got into politics, really my dream was, if you’d asked me when I started out, was to be a U.S. Senator. And I had realized that dream. I never dreamed of being on a national ticket. So how does it start – I mean, I’ll try to do this so this is not the whole conversation but –
KRISTOL: You’re a Senator from Connecticut and Al Gore gets the Democrat nomination.
LIEBERMAN: Yeah, I’m a Senator from Connecticut. I know – I know Al. We’ve served together. We worked on things together. And it’s probably April of 2000 and, maybe it’s March, and Warren Christopher, the former Secretary of State, asked, “If you can come by and see me in my office,” and he says that Al Gore has asked him to chair the selection committee for Vice President. And I had known Christopher some, particularly on Aspen Institute programs, which he had chaired on relations between the former Soviet Union and the U.S. Anyway, we had spent time together.
So he came to the office and he told me what he was doing and he said, “I wanted to ask you for people you would recommend that Al Gore think about.” I’m talking to a lot of people, so I mentioned some people. And then he said, “Would you be interested in being considered?” So, you know, I naturally said, “Well, it’d be an honor. I can’t imagine it’s plausible. But, yes, sure.”
So that was that, and then he – I think that might have been it for that conversation and then he called me back and said – this was probably early May. I remember it because I took the call in the house. And there may have been one in between in this in, but the house here in Washington. And my wife, Hadassah, and our youngest daughter, Hani, were there. And it was Christopher and he said, “We’ve gone all over the names and Al is – would like very much to put you on the short list to be considered. Are you – is that okay? You may want to talk to your wife.” And there had been one conversation in between where he said that I was under active consideration. And my wife and I had talked about it. Again, we said, you know, “This is really an unexpected turn of events. It’s exciting and thrilling, it’s awesome. It’s not going to happen, but if they really want to vet me, then, of course, we’ll do it.” I said that to him.
I remember we had a funny conversation in which he said, “You may want to think about it because this vetting process is very painful. We’re going to go everything in your life.” And I’m trying to remember whether it was me – because I knew Christopher well enough – he said, “It’s like a medical procedure without an anesthesia.” So I said, “You mean sort of like a colonoscopy without – anyway – without a painkiller?” “Yes.” So I said, “Yes, if he wants to.”
And then Hani and Hadassah were – I remember this – were not in the room where I took the call and I said, to paint a picture for you, I said, “Come on down.” We had our living room/dining room and there were steps upstairs. I said, “Sit on the steps. I want to –” I pulled a dining room chair out and I looked at both of them on the steps and I said – I told them the story. “Oh my God!” So that began a vetting process.
I remember that Mike Berman who was a friend of mine who had been Walter Mondale’s campaign manager and he heard I was being vetted and he said I – he called me up and he said, “I’m really glad they’re looking at you.” He said, “Honestly, everything is going to be turned upside down in your life.” It’s interesting because they had the problem with Mondale and Ferraro that – So he said, “Go home tonight. Tell Hadassah to sit down at the table. You sit down directly opposite her. Look her straight in the eye and say, ‘Sweetheart, is there anything about your past life that I don’t know because if there is something I should know, it’s going to come out, they’re going to find it.’” And she said, “Oh, don’t worry about it. It’s fine.”
So they chose attorney Jamie Gorelick, who was – she had been in the Clinton Administration. And I knew her a little bit, not much – to head the vetting team. They had something like six or seven people working on it. It really was exhaustive. I mean, I remember they told me they sent somebody up to New Haven to read my editorials while I was the editor and chairman of the Yale Daily News. And I remember that they said that the two most radical things I did was, one, to call for the recognition of a country that was then known as Red China. And the second was that I was a very fervent advocate for co-education at Yale. Neither one of those was –
KRISTOL: Did much damage.
LIEBERMAN: Did much damage. So the – and we’re all keeping it quiet. I mean, I actually had a friend named Jonathan Sallet who was in between jobs, a lawyer. And I realized they were asking for an enormous amount of personal information, financial. I needed somebody really to organize this. So we quietly hired him for not very much and he did a great job at pulling everything together.
KRISTOL: You kept this totally quiet, I mean your own staff, Senate staff didn’t know –
LIEBERMAN: We kept it very quiet. Really Jonathan was separate. We made sure that the Senate, only one person in the office, my Chief of Staff and my executive assistant who knew. But no one else did. Later on, one of my key people said, “I kept wondering why was Jonathan Sallet around,” you know, after it came out. They spoke to a lot of people about me.
I’ll add this, Bill, because it is interesting. This is a – this is a process. I mean, the selection by a presidential nominee – and by that time, Al Gore was the clear nominee – is one of the most sort of singular unilateral exercises of authority in American politics because it’s not that the nominee for president doesn’t talk to people but basically he or she can do – choose whoever they want. And it’s not, clearly, this is all quiet, covert but there’s also a way in which you want to advance your cause but you want to do it subtly.
And so you know my colleague from Connecticut, Chris Dodd, I took into my confidence. And you will not be surprised to hear that there were some people on the left of the party that we thought might not be enthusiastic about it even then. So he talked to some of the labor unions and some of the education groups, civil rights groups. And then things happened that are totally accidental. A friend of mine that was a businessman – I’ll mention him, he passed away, he deserves credit – Sam Hayman. He sensed that I was being considered. He called me up and he said, you know, “By coincidence, Al Gore’s brother-in-law, his name was Frank Hunger, has represented me in cases and I’m pretty friendly with him. I’m going to make a pitch to him about why you’re the right nominee.” And he did. And in a very eloquent letter, really flattering. And you know who knows because Frank Hunger was quite close to Al at that time. So –
KRISTOL: So this all goes on behind the scenes? And then – and then at some moment –
LIEBERMAN: Goes on behind the scenes. And then it’s going a little later than normally it does but we’re about, oh, probably we’re within a week of the convention. And what my wife began to call the bobbing heads on television, that is the rumored nominees, some of which were real and some of which never, I found later, were considered. But the rumored possible selections in that last weekend when it was leaked that Al Gore was going to make his choice were down to – they’re really quite a threesome – John Kerry, John Edwards, and me. And –
KRISTOL: But at this point, you haven’t had a direct conversation with Vice President Gore?
LIEBERMAN: So – a very important question, about a week or 10 days before this, I get a call from the vice president’s office that he’s now interviewing the sort of short list, so to speak. It was probably five or six people. And in a really ornate process, they told me that a fellow named Philip Dufour who was sort of the Chief of Staff at the residence is going to come and pick me up in a van with tinted windows at my house and drive me in the back way to the vice president’s residence.
So I went in and I had a conversation. And in a way, it was awkward because Al and I are friends, we were fairly close then. But he really has to interview me and you know we went over some of the things. And he too asked me is there anything about your past that we haven’t found out that I should know because it is going to come out.
KRISTOL: It’s just the two of you?
LIEBERMAN: It’s just the two of us and no staff and it was a cordial conversation. I mean I knew him well enough to joke a little bit. And that was it. I mean it was clear to me that I was being considered but I still had no knowledge. The weekend before, we were in New Haven where we lived and as I ended up being one of the final three, the house is surrounded by an increasing number of satellite TV trucks, were all around. It’s an amazing – and my neighbors are pouring out and everybody is wondering what’s going to happen. So we hear the decision is going to be made on a Sunday night and interestingly –
KRISTOL: So this I think a week before the convention, is that right?
LIEBERMAN: The conventions, this is August already.
KRISTOL: Right so the convention is going to be a week later –
LIEBERMAN: Yeah it’s going to follow, it’s going to start a week Monday.
So this is Sunday night. We know that the decision is being made. I had people sort of close in the Gore campaign who are telling us things. About that evening, my mother had come up from Stanford. She was then about 80, maybe 85, actually. And I get a call from my press secretary. He tells me he’s just heard from somebody at one of the networks and he’s sorry to have to be the one to tell me but they’ve heard from inside that they’ve selected John Edwards. So, I – you know, I pull out a bottle of wine, I bring the family together. I said, you know, “This was incredible that we got this close,” and we have a toast to America and everything, isn’t it wonderful?
And we go to sleep but the TV trucks are out there and I get up in the morning and I flip the remote on about 5 of 7 before – I’m still in bed with Hadassah. And the local TV anchor is saying, “Now, let me just repeat that really exciting news. The AP is reporting that Vice President Gore has chosen our own Senator Joe Lieberman to be his running mate.” What?
KRISTOL: So you see this on TV before you get a phone call from anyone?
LIEBERMAN: I didn’t get a phone call. I wake Hadassah up. All hell breaks loose. I’ll tell you about not getting a phone call from Al Gore.
I mean, if you want a little local color. One of my few jobs, as Hadassah would tell you, in the house is I make the coffee in the morning. So it’s August. I’m in my underwear. So I walk down into the kitchen to make the coffee and there are TV cameras at each of the windows. So I go hit the floor.
Anyway, we saw things were changing. And people started to call about 7:30. I’m upstairs. Hadassah yells up, “Joe, it’s Al.” So I pick up the phone and the voice on the other end says, “This is fantastic.” I said, “Who is this?” “Al From.”
KRISTOL: A Democratic political –
LIEBERMAN: He was a political guy. Actually, weirdly enough, I had a longstanding previous commitment to speak in Hartford that morning at the state labor convention and I still didn’t know – I thought it was real, I still didn’t know, so my campaign manager, Sherry Brown, I called in Hartford. And I said, “Can you talk to somebody and” –
KRISTOL: Plus, you’re on the ballot this year for reelection.
LIEBERMAN: I’m on the ballot for Senator, right, so that’s why I’m going to the labor convention. So she calls and she says, “Yep, they say it’s real, go to the convention, they want you to go and make a speech.” And so we drive up. And I finally hear from Al. You know, I never actually asked why he didn’t call me earlier. I’m coming back to New Haven after I made the speech. It was probably 12:30 by that time. He calls me in the car. Of course, at that time, we had these enormous car phones.
KRISTOL: There’s no email. People, sort of, I’m, young people watching are thinking, “Well, didn’t they email or text,” but there’s no email at this point?
LIEBERMAN: Email, no. I know. So then he says, “You probably heard I want you to be my running mate.” I’ll tell you a quick story. Stop me if I’m going too long.
About two weeks later, a really fine reporter named Ron Fournier who at that point was with the AP rides to Wilmington, Delaware, for a campaign stop and he tells me, “I’ve got to tell you a story,” because he was the one who broke the news because by that time, the Gore campaign didn’t trust most of the press. So they gave it to Claire Shipman who broke on – I think she might have been with the Today Show at that point or maybe with ABC, maybe ABC. And Fournier.
And he told me – I’ll tell you the story quickly – that they were going to decide. Chris Lehane who was Al Gore’s press secretary, said, “We’re going to decide tonight or we’re calling you. You’re going to break it.” And so it got to be about 11:30, and he called Lehane and he said, “I’m still at the office, is it really going to be tonight?” He says, “It is but go home and just stay by your phone.” And apparently Al made the decision after midnight. They called Chris Lehane about 5 – they called Ron Fournier about 5 or 5:15.
So Lehane, as Fournier tells this to me, he says, “We’ve made a selection and you’re going to break it but you’ve got to guess who it is.” So he says – he’s telling me this story – “John Kerry.” And no, Lehane says no. “John Edwards?” No. So he says, “I knew it. You’re going to the Midwest. It’s Evan Bayh.” No. And then he says, “Oh, my God. You’re making history. It’s Joe Lieberman.” Yes. And that was the way the story came out. So –
KRISTOL: Fantastic. And when was the – and I have this image of you and Hadassah, your wife, your mother, as I recall, some of the kids at least at this very kind of emotional, moving press statement and press conference. Is that Monday afternoon or Tuesday or morning?
LIEBERMAN: No, it was – so here’s an interesting story. Later, there was a – the Gore campaign assembled a vice presidential team, management team, campaign manager, press, etc. And they were waiting, they told me later, in Nashville and they didn’t know whether they were going to North Carolina for Edwards, Boston for Kerry or New Haven for me.
They flew up, they came to the house, and then they flew us down to Nashville. I mean, I knew things were changing because as we headed out, the Press Secretary was Kiki McLean who I had known some before. And before we go out the door of the house to get in the car to go to the New Haven airport, she says, “Sir.” She always called me sir, even when we were friends. “Sir, the press reactions to your nomination have been extraordinarily positive. Please do not stop and talk to the press on the way out.”
So I go out the door of my house and there are these three guys from the Connecticut press, two I remember particularly, Mark Davis and Tom Monahan. I’ve known them for 30 years. “Hey, Joe.” So what am I going to do, I go over and talk to them. But she says to me later, “I can see you’re going to be trouble.” Anyway, we were –
KRISTOL: So it was the next morning that the big thing in Nashville?
LIEBERMAN: Yeah, the next morning. I’ll tell you a quick story. We had a lovely dinner, the Gore family and my family. And Al Gore said at that dinner, he said, “I want you to know that I decided two weeks ago that I wanted you to be my running mate but I really thought it would be irresponsible for me to try to talk to some other people about whether they thought America was ready for a Jewish Vice President, the proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency.”
So I always wondered whether Al did a poll. I think if I were him, I would have done a poll. But he said he called a number of friends. And he said to me, “I called a number of my Jewish friends, and I called a number of my Christian friends. And here was what I found. Most of the Jews were extremely anxious and uncertain about the reaction to your nomination.” He said, “Every Christian friend I called said there would be no problem.” So then with a little bit of Gore humor, which people don’t remember sometimes, he said, “So, since I know that there are so millions more Christians in America than Jews, I decided I could choose you, which is what I wanted to do.” Anyway, that was it.
And then it was announced the next morning at the War Memorial Plaza, a big plaza in Nashville. It was thrilling. And Hadassah did something. He asked her to get up and sort of say something. She toasted him at the dinner on Monday night and said you know for her personally, she’s a child of Holocaust survivors, there was really – I get choked up – it was really unbelievable that she was where she was with her husband nominated to be the second highest office in America, the greatest country in the world. And he said to her afterward, you know, “I want you to introduce Joe tomorrow and if you want to say something like that, say it,” and she did, it was really quite moving. It was a great day. A lot of the World War II vets, identified them and it was –
KRISTOL: I remember her remarks actually –
LIEBERMAN: So that whole day was really, if you ask people what’s the most thrilling moment, really it was. And even though it ended in the strange way it did, I always say not to re-litigate the results, but you know we did get a half million more votes and it does – it vindicated Gore’s confidence that America was not going to judge me based on my religion. And it’s a wonderful thing to be able to say.
KRISTOL: That’s great.
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