Is Lieberman Worthy of Conservative Kudos?

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Commenting
on Fox News Network
on Aug. 8 about the selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman as Democratic
vice-presidential candidate, self-described liberal activist Ellen
Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Studies described the Connecticut
lawmaker as “my very favorite rightist.” The interviewer, Sean
Hannity
, smiled at this praise with obvious pleasure, for though
an embattled Republican loyalist, Hannity likewise talked up Lieberman
as a “man of character and moderation.”

These sentiments soon would be echoed across the country, and most
noticeably by allegedly conservative celebrities and journalists.
For William
F. Buckley
, Lieberman, a professing Orthodox Jew, is a “resplendent
example of the species” and “99 percent pure goodness” – the 1 percent
of non-goodness coming presumably from the taint of original sin.
For William Bennett, already interviewed on Aug. 8, Lieberman “has
his feet much more firmly planted in the Talmud than in focus groups!”
For Eric Fettmann of the New
York Post
, Liebermans Orthodoxy “defines who he is not just
as a Jew but as an American! It “informs his public service,” but,
unlike evangelical Christianity, which Fetttnann clearly despises,
“is not something he proselytizes [sic].”

In a more fulsome tribute, Ben
Wattenberg
on Aug. 9 expressed his considerable pride in Lieberman
as a fellow Jew and fellow moderate conservative. Because of the
Lieberman factor, Wattenberg observed, he has “moved from Bush to
undecided.” The one drawback for Democrats in Liebermans candidacy,
notes another neoconservative, John
Podhoretz
, besides the perennial problem of Christian anti-Semitism,
is the inevitability of a contrast between Al Gore and his running
mate, “a man of conscience and high morals!”

Undoubtedly shocked by these endorsements of Lieberman from self-described
conservatives as well as the left, Bob
Novak
, in a syndicated column on Aug. 10, tried to set the record
straight: “While talking the moderate talk, he walks the liberal
walk. The news-media description this week of a centrist moderate
or even conservative misrepresented a party regular who more often
than not is a conventional liberal.”

Novak had abundant documentation for the charge being leveled: Liebermans
support for partial-birth abortion, federal gay-rights and hate-crime
laws, and the marks that he received for his 1999 voting record
in the Senate. The National
Education Association
rated his record at 90 percent and the
National Abortion Rights
Action League
at 100 percent. On the other hand, the National
Right to Life Committee
rated Lieberman at 2 percent, and the
American Conservative
Union
gave him a zero.

Moreover, Lieberman’s supposed breaking of ranks worth his party
in criticizing President Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair,
an action that several days ago George
Will
reached for superlatives to extol, was an empty gesture
that also may have been highly calculated. In the end, after well-televised
hand-wringing, Lieberman voted with the Democrats to take Clinton
off the hook.

It might be asked what harm there is in having conservatives praise
a nice guy from a non-Christian minority group, without necessarily
seconding all his positions. As New York Post columnist Ron Dreher
pointed out on Aug. 9, “with the possible exception of Pat
Moynihan
, Honest Joe is every Republicans favorite Democrat.”
He “has earned friends and admirers on the cultural right as a leading
cultural critic of sex and violence in the entertainment industry.”

But the liberal Democratic former senator from Illinois, Paul Simon,
took exactly the same stands without eliciting applause from the
“cultural right.” Indeed, conservative journalists were quite critical
of Simon, although his voting record in the Senate was no more liberal
than that of Lieberman.

And, despite the misinformation spread by conservative journalists
that Lieberman was Gores most conservative vice presidential possibility,
it was not the Connecticut senator but an Indiana senator, Evan
Bayh
, who may have stood farthest to the right as an opponent
of partial- birth abortion. Unlike Lieberman, Bayh aroused the anger
of the National Organization
of Women
which, during Gores decision-making process, protested
Bayhs “problematic stance” on abortion.

Two factors have worked in favor of Liebermans image as a “moderate”
leaning rightward. First, his appeal to other self-identified Jews
in public life, including many neoconservatives; and second, what
Orthodox Jewish commentator Meyer
Schiller
characterizes as the “guilty conscience” of American
conservatism.

Remarkably enough, Lieberman and his cheering gallery continue to
refer to his elevation by Gore as a “miracle!” Implicit in this
expression of astonishment is a slur against the United States as
an anti-Semitic country that until recently, perhaps last week,
would not allow a Jew to achieve high national office.

Forget about the facts that Jews have served in the Senate since
the early 19th century, that the secretary of state of the Confederacy
was Jewish, as well as Richard Nixons secretary of state! And let
us also ignore that Jews, who constitute only 2 percent of the U.S.
population, have been subject to far less Protestant bigotry than
Catholic immigrants, who in the 19th century were victims of violent
riots and had their churches and convents burned down.

But in the guilty minds of American Christians — including
and perhaps especially in the minds of Christian conservatives —
all Christians bear the ominous burden of the anti-Semitic past.
Liebermans neoconservative boosters have played to this guilty conscience
despite the insurmountable fact that a bevy of American Jews in
earlier generations made it to the top in politics, as well as business
and the arts.

Liebermans cheerleaders have contrasted the senators self-affirming
Jewishness to the muted ethnic identity of other Jewish political
celebrities. This polarity, highlighted for several days in the
New York Post, does not seem particularly convincing. What is invariably
shown is not a theological difference but one of ethnic identification,
that, like Republican Rep. Peter
King
of New York, a frequent apologist for the Irish Republic
Army, Lieberman is believed to serve an ethnically defined electorate
with unswerving fidelity. In short, he’s thought to be “good for
Jews,” although his “moderate” positions on the peace process, warns
neocon Sidney Zion, should make truly Zionistic Jews think twice
about supporting him.

As for his study of the Torah, Calvinist theologian Harold
O.J. Brown
, writing in Religion
and Society
, asks whether the God of the Old Testament would
approve of Liebermans views on gays and partial-birth abortion.
It may be a sign of the times that only a Reformed Christian would
bother to notice this glaring incompatibility between Liebermans
politics and the teachings of biblical morality.

The cloying praise bestowed on Lieberman typifies two of the least
attractive features of the conservative movement: the obsessive
ethnicity of its Jewish neocon pundits and the indulgence of this
trait by other conservative celebrities at least partly because
of Christian guilt or fear of being seen as insensitive. Both tendencies
account for the continuing hyperbole about Lieberman as a moderate
conservative. By contrast, none of this praise was showered on Missouri
Synod Lutheran Paul Simon for criticizing Hollywood, going to church
on Sunday, and talking about “values.”

Whether the fear of being called anti-Semitic or genuine regret
over what Christians did to Jews in other times and on other continents
has led to this double standard, the result is embarrassing.

Conservatives hallucinate about Liebermans politics, just as the
Heritage Foundation
grossly misrepresented the “moderateness” of Ruth Bader-Ginsburg when that Jewish feminist came up for
consideration for the Supreme Court in 1993. The unwillingness of
Republican Sen. Jesse
Helms
of North Carolina to pull punches in assessing Bader-Ginsburgs
candidacy, after she had received a clean bill of health from Heritage,
allowed the Washington
Post
to make Helmss honest observations appear to be more than
slightly anti-Semitic.

My own impression is that conservatives act as they do primarily
because of a misguided guilty conscience. In their awkward reaching-out,
such conservatives have rendered themselves ludicrous and opened
themselves to a question that I heard asked by a Jewish auditor
after a session of Firing Line at which both of us were present.
“If these guys (Gentile conservatives) are trying so hard to be
nice to us, they must feel guilty about something.” This octogenarian
retiree had an extremely good point, which the general conservative
response to Lieberman has caused me to reflect on again.

It also reminded me of the disproportion between the praise lavished
by centrist conservatives on Lieberman and the furry unleashed by
some of the same journalists on Pat Buchanan. Having encountered
characterizations of Buchanan as a “wacko,” “extremist” and “neo-Nazi”
in the Weekly
Standard
, the New York Post, and Commentary
and only few defenses of his character in other mainstream conservative
publications I am appalled by the way the conservative movement
treats right-wing deviationists, including all paleoconservatives,
as opposed to “moderate” liberals such as Lieberman. Although I
do not share all of Buchanans views, it is for me entirely unproved
that Buchanan (whom I know well) is any kind of an anti-Semite,
a point readily conceded by Lieberman on Meet
The Press
on Aug.
13
.

The spasmodic praise Lieberman has enjoyed in recent weeks, courtesy
of the official Right, shows how deeply that revolution has infected
“moderate” conservatives. This infection will continue to plague
the Right until support for infanticide and courting the gay vote
will offend conservatives at least as much as not reaching out to
their opponents.

September
4, 2000

Paul
Gottfried is professor of history at Elizabethtown College and author,
most recently, of the highly recommended After
Liberalism
.

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