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.