It’s strange to see a public official out of context, just going about his or her life. I’m used to seeing Sen. Joseph Lieberman campaigning, doing interviews on TV or delivering policy speeches. And so it was fascinating to see him getting an aliyah in shul, doting on his grandchildren, sitting at a seder and mingling at kiddush, all sans entourage or news cameras, when he and I wound up at the same hotel for Passover.
An elected official is never truly off duty, and never out of the spotlight; anything he says or does in a crowd can easily end up in the news the next day, especially in this age of Twitter and cell phone cameras, and so I had to wonder what it must be like to never have your guard completely down. If he uttered the blessings out of sequence during the aliyah (as I did once) would someone in the room put it on a blog or Facebook? And what of the constant flurry of commentary, questions and opinions from other guests? As much as we journalists hate to be told “I’ve got a great story for you” on our day off or at a social event, it must be just as irritating to have to discuss the Middle East or the Bush tax cuts when you’re picking up the twins from day camp.
But from what I observed, Lieberman, a polished public persona after three decades in various offices, handled it all with grace and took it in stride. While he did not speak publicly, his wife, Hadassah did, but he was willing, even anxious, to answer questions from the audience about his career.
Faced with a journalist’s dilemma of assessing the propriety of time and place, I took a chance and asked for an interview after the senator publicly mentioned his upcoming book about Shabbat, figuring it would be a good jumping off point. It paid off, and he agreed to "go rogue" (his words) and without speaking to his press secretary, dedicate a generous amount of time after Yom Tov for a wide-ranging discussion that you can read, almost word for word, here.
What struck me most was his his lack of bitterness. Although he clearly feels cheated out of the opportunity to serve as the first Jewish vice president and, perhaps, to have had the inside track for the 2008 presidential nomination as Al Gore’s successor, Lieberman seems comfortable with the present and looking only ahead at his hopes for life after the Senate, which may include some appointed political position.
Lieberman’s book, due in August (evidently aimed at the Christian right as well as Jews) will deal in part with how he handled religious dilemmas while in office and answer questions some have raised about how a Sabbath observant Jew might conduct himself in the 24/7 world of the Oval Office. Addressing an audience at the hotel, he said that in his congressional career he always had in mind that the people of Connecticut should never be denied the power of having two senators in Washington at any given time, and so he often walked to the Capitol for Saturday votes.
No intelligent person could believe that a Sabbath-observant Jewish president or high-ranking official would isolate himself on Saturday and refuse to answer the phone as foreign or domestic crises brewed, but Lieberman is doing a public service by detailing how pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life is "related to the underlying purpose of Shabbat, which is to honor God’s creations."
Readers will probably have mixed opinions about some of Lieberman’s positions and choices while in office, but whether or not he ends up as a foreign ambassador after 2012, he’s been a pretty good ambassador on behalf of observant Jews.