- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2000

So maybe Messrs. Bush and Cheney are no longer needed to restore decency and integrity to the Oval Office after all. That, more than anything else, is the not-so-subtle spin on Al Gore's selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman as his running mate. Mr. Lieberman is "a man of integrity," we are told in the papers and on the airwaves, not to mention "the conscience of the senate."

"Gravitas," that media-tic of a word, doesn't even begin to encompass the toga-ready stature of this Connecticut Democrat. As quickly as Mr. Gore made him his nominee (over, among others, Sen. Evan Bayh, whose selection-smashing lapse appears to have been a vote to ban partial-birth abortion), the media crowned Mr. Lieberman with a cascade of laurels. Behold: Ethicus Maximus.

Mr. Lieberman's obvious gifts notwithstanding, one may be left puzzling over what it is that elevates him at least a pedestal-span above the shoulders of his colleagues. For example, the media have never before been so fondly disposed toward politicians, who, like Mr. Lieberman, have attempted to join battle with Hollywood against obscenity and violence in pop culture. (Just think Tom DeLay or Henry Hyde.) And while he is an Orthodox Jew, Mr. Lieberman is by no means unique in politics for his religious devotion.

It seems that the most compelling evidence of a decidedly superior morality lies in the famous speech Mr. Lieberman made in Sept. 1998, when, fueled by "personal anger," he was the first Senate Democrat to criticize President Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair. As Mr. Lieberman told it then, "immoral and irresponsible" Mr. Clinton had betrayed half the Western world, from Miss Lewinsky herself, to his own family, to the nation its courts, its people, and, in particular, its families and young children. In so doing, Mr. Lieberman continued, Mr. Clinton had "undermined his moral authority and public credibility." Tough stuff.

But for all the late summer fireworks, Mr. Lieberman had sufficiently collected himself by winter to vote against conviction. Cooled off to the point of just being "deeply disappointed" in the president, Mr. Lieberman was satisfied to pass the buck on such grave matters as perjury and obstruction of justice. These, he said, "appropriately, should and must be left to the criminal justice system, which will uphold the rule of law in President Clinton's case as it would for any other American." (Quick: Is that still his position? What about Al Gore?) In other words, Mr. Lieberman didn't really make a stand. He made a speech, and then voted with his party. All of which may be politics as usual, but not exactly the stuff of the oracle at Delphi.

This expression of morality which is just that is something that the Gore campaign seems to think it can live with. For all the sturm und drang, there was no dissenting vote or breaking ranks in the Lieberman record to divide the two politicians. Still, the speech itself remains a live wire on the electoral rails. Early on, it looks as if the Democrats haven't quite gotten the most effective handle on their morality line. When quizzed this week on whether he agreed with Mr. Lieberman at the time, the vice president oh-so-trippingly replied, "Yes, and I said so at the time, and you know the president said that he agreed with it at the time."

Oh, really. Funny, but no one else seems to have heard this. (And funnier still that Mr. Lieberman actually opened his 1998 speech by saying that he must "respectfully disagree" with the president's statement that both his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and his lies about it were "nobody's business but his family's." So far, there is only one person who partly corroborates Mr. Gore's story Hillary Rodham Clinton and it must be said that she sounds a little weak. In response to a similar question this week, Mrs. Clinton said, "You know, the president said he agreed with him. And I think people are going to find a lot to like about Joe Lieberman."

Scripted but extremely lame, both responses are nonetheless quite revealing. Mr. Gore says he agreed, and they both say Mr. Clinton agreed, with the Lieberman excoriation that castigated the president for his unfaithfulness, his mendacity and a betrayal of the public trust that undermined his moral authority to govern. It is as if by a simple declaration of agreement that Mr. Gore and Mrs. Clinton believe they have both defused the issue and discharged their moral responsibility. That's not morality, of course that's lip service. It will be interesting to see which of the two Mr. Lieberman chooses to inject into the debate.

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