Salvo 04.09.2024 5 minutes

Lieberman: A Not Entirely Respectful Dissent


All “public servants” deserve a presumption against obituary praise.

The death of “national treasure” Joseph Lieberman, of complications from a fall, has provoked expected praise of the late senator—of his centrism, his bipartisanship (by which the two major parties conspire against the public), and, above all, his virtue. De mortuis, etc., but his shtick as a man of God, a man of conscience, etc., long irked many of us. This website observed an appropriate interval of silence after our national loss on March 27 before letting one of the irked speak up.

My words here are harsh, but anyone, of any party, in the “public service” of misspending our money and meddling in our lives should be prepared to be judged harshly. There should be a presumption against the worthiness of any “public servant,” and it should be reflected in obituaries and by those dismissive scare quotes. If the presumption can be rebutted, praise can instead be effused. I write harshly about Lieberman mostly because he deserved the effusions less than your average deceased Joe or Josephine; moreover, he seems to have done little to discourage the gross overestimation of him that he enjoyed while he was alive.

The current effusions about Lieberman were anticipated in a volume of tributes to him published by Congress when he left office. It states that he had “written extensively on the dignity and nobility of [‘]public service,[’]” although not, apparently, on the modesty and frugality of insisting that any such tributes be published at private expense—still less that they not be published at all. It’s as if I wrote extensively on the dignity and nobility of “service” as a writer on this website.

Lieberman should not be granted an exception from this presumption against “public servants” merely because he wasn’t a lot worse than most of those who lord over us. It’s a small price for them to pay for the immunity they generally enjoy from responsibility for the consequences of their folly and incompetence, to say nothing of their unpunished venality and worse. We, the lorded-over private citizens, can only dream of our lords’ side of the bargain, which has the even worse effect of conferring undue legitimacy on their official acts and on government in general. In any event, a few harsh words won’t kill the lords, especially if they are already squabbling over committee assignments from Satan (or whoever presides over their eternal incumbencies).

There are some unworthinesses of the late Senator that we can memorialize during this season of national sorrow.

His ostentatiously displayed conscience didn’t prevent him from voting to acquit Bill Clinton on charges that included perjury (which harmed the country) after scolding him for adultery (which didn’t). No doubt a fine distinction like that satisfied his intellect and self-regard.

He teamed up in 2000 with the ethically flexible Al Gore, expressing both impious immodesty about being chosen (“Miracles happen”) and immoderate idolatry about who chose him (“I believe deeply in Al Gore”). Before Gore finally conceded the election, he called Lieberman with a heads-up. As Lieberman told the story 20 years later, “I had counseled the vice president differently, but I can say unreservedly that [Gore’s] choice was the best for our country.” You can almost feel sorry for poor Gore, forced to sit through what must have been the tedious slicings and dicings of Lieberman’s “counsel.” Gore may have exacted some revenge at Lieberman’s funeral, where the cultural appropriator lectured the mourners on the meaning of “mensch.”

When it was expedient, Lieberman went independent and then co-founded the spoiler holier-than-thou organization No Labels. That was instead of making a harder choice and joining the only party that some of us think could save America—or Lieberman’s also-beloved Israel. But principles, folks.

As for the praise for his being one of the last “Democratic moderates,” he could instead be named as one of many powerful Democrats who, out of ignorance, cowardice, or both, did little to exercise power to prevent their party from becoming the party of the ultra-wealthy, unending war, and unfreedom.

After the Senate, he lived a modest and quiet private life. Oh, sorry, I meant he kept himself in the public eye with op-eds and interviews and cashed in as a “senior counsel” at a lucrative law firm that probably bears little resemblance to Cincinnatus’s farm. The firm eulogized him as the “wisest adviser,” missing a chance to use “Wonderful Counselor.”

Thus ended Lieberman’s “long and distinguished career in public service,” as the journalistic keyboard macro goes. Here, it meant decades of wielding Leviathan’s monopoly of force: first, as state attorney general, to go after others for what they have and haven’t done; and second, as state and federal legislator, to tell others what they must and mustn’t do. Thank goodness he was spared the need to be a productive member of the commercial world, which would have deprived us of his wise magistracy.

Complications from a fall? Perhaps he tripped on the frayed hem of his robe of sanctimony. RIP, however.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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