It’s not the first time he’s been a punch line, or worse. Over nearly 24 years in Washington, Joseph I. Lieberman’s been called everything from the “conscience of the Senate” to an “unprincipled troll.”
But on this winter day, two months shy of his 70th birthday, Lieberman is red-faced with laughter, reacting to a female staffer’s deadpan reminder that Mr. Family Values, the guy who used to denounce Hollywood for its sexually explicit fare, is about to begin his last year in the Senate freshly branded by comedian Dennis Miller as, well, oversexed.
“Who would have guessed it?” Lieberman exulted. “Joe Lieberman, the weekend horn dog!”
Of course, the intrusion of the Lieberman libido into the public consciousness comes not from scandal, but from the senator’s latest book, “The Gift of Rest,” a paean to the joys of the Sabbath. And, yes, those joys – and responsibilities, in Lieberman’s view — include sexual intimacy with one’s spouse.
It is a serious book, but the reference to Sabbath sex is an invitation, if not a dare, to comedians and commentators. With a voice like a glass of warm milk and the sleepy countenance of a basset hound, Lieberman is more likely to be compared to Deputy Dawg, than a horn dog. Miller is not the only comedian to have fun.
Conan O’Brien’s late-night take: “Joe Lieberman has written a memoir in which he reveals why having sex with his wife on the Sabbath is so important to him. It’s in the chapter called, ‘You Might Want to Skip This.’ “
Lieberman is hardly distressed by the attention, perhaps a sign of the liberation that comes with an impending retirement. For the first time since 1970, when he was a 28-year-old candidate for the state legislature, Lieberman knows he never again will stand for election.
“When I made the decision that I didn’t want to run again, part of it was that I felt that 24 years in the Senate when I finish, 16 years before that in elective office, that’s a lot of time, 40 years,” Lieberman said. “To a certain extent I felt that I – I feel like an artist – that I established a body of work.”
Lieberman is slouched in a chair in the conference room of his office in downtown Hartford, sipping a bottle of water. He knows the interview is one of many that will pop up on his schedule, one of the rituals of an American politician preparing to exit the stage.
“I’m beginning the year with a certain amount of reflection, looking back. I hope I can get a few more things done in this year,” Lieberman said. “I don’t have to tell you it’s a very frustrating time.”
He said 2011 was the least productive of his tenure in the Senate, and 2012 promises to be worse. An already hyper-partisan year is about to give way to a presidential election
year, seldom an inducement to compromise, a necessary step for anything productive to come from a Democratic Senate and a Republican House.
Congress has done nothing momentous since the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” the ban on gays serving openly in the military, he said. Lieberman was a lead negotiator on the repeal, lining up several Republican votes.
His biggest frustration is over the debt. The right refuses to raise taxes, while the left resists trimming Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, entitlements that account for about 40 percent of federal spending. Lieberman said taxes and cuts are necessary, and nearly everyone knows it.
“There is no way around it,” he said.
With debt reform seemingly off the table, Lieberman, the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, said his major goal for his final year is passage of the far-ranging cybersecurity bill he has been working on for two years with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
His committee recently approved the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, known as the STOCK Act. It is a reaction to a book and a “60 Minutes” story about members of Congress profiting from insider knowledge.
Lieberman said he sees no evidence of such profiteering, but he calls it “one small step forward for a little more trust.”
He may sit out the presidential campaign and the race to fill his seat. He has had no real political home since 2006, when he was re-elected as an independent after losing a Democratic primary to Ned Lamont.
In 2000, he was Al Gore’s running mate, the first Jew on a major party ticket. In 2004, his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination was a non-starter over his support for President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Lieberman has remained a member of the Democratic caucus in the Senate, but he has no relationship with the Connecticut Democratic Party. He hasn’t been invited to the party’s annual social, the Jefferson-Jackson-Bailey Dinner, since 2006.
He was booed at the dinner that year, even though his re-election was endorsed that night by the keynote speaker, Sen. Barack Obama.
Two years later, Lieberman was on Republican John McCain’s short list for vice president, embraced by McCain, but not by the GOP. The party was happy to have Lieberman kick off its convention with a recitation of Barack Obama’s shortcomings, but a closer relationship was unpalatable.
When Lieberman’s name leaked as a possible VP, he said, McCain was told that one-third of the delegates at the Republican National Convention would walk out in a protest if McCain insisted on a lifelong Democrat who was pro-choice and pro-gay rights.
“John,” he recalled telling McCain, “I don’t how you can possibly choose me to run with you.”
McCain insisted he was serious.
“And that was it,” Lieberman said. “We honestly never talked about it again as much as we were together.”
Lieberman said he thinks he will enjoy being on the sidelines next year.
“Right now, I’m as likely not to get involved in any other campaign as I am to get involved,” he said.
But after nearly being on each major party’s ticket, Lieberman said he is intrigued by Americans Elect, a nascent third-party trying to organize over the web with the intention of getting a presidential nominee on the ballot in all 50 states. They are looking for candidates with bipartisan appeal.
Does Lieberman have anyone in mind?
“I don’t know. Not me,” he said.
If nominated, he will not run?
“Yeah, I’m going to be Shermanesque,” Lieberman said. “I’ve had my run at elective office.”