- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2000

On the day Sen. Joe Lieberman and millions of other Americans did a collective tap dance of pleasure as he accepted Al Gore's nomination for the vice presidency, the Rev. James Goode, president of the National Black Catholic Clergy, made a statement. He issued a call for a national 40-day period of prayer for the "African slaves and victims of genocide in the Sudan."

The senator and the Franciscan priest have one connection, rooted far from from America. Each tries in his own way to awaken Americans and their government to the full horror of what is going on in the Sudan the Islamicist government's war against its own people.

So far, about 2 million have been slaughtered, mostly Christian, moderate Muslims and Africans of tribal faiths. The senator and the priest are trying, for one thing, to get food and medicine from abroad dropped directly to the government's prey, from the marauding army and government officials. It happens that Mr. Lieberman is one of the few devoted human-rights senators in Congress. You find a Lieberman Democrat here, a Republican like Sam Brownback of Kansas, or Connie Mack of Florida there, but you hardly use all your fingers counting them off.

Their very scarcity makes each one important. Mr. Lieberman is one of the most effective, in his influence and ability to persuade.

So the question is: If Mr. Lieberman is elected vice president could he continue his human rights work fully, or would politics and protocol shut him up as they have previous vice presidents?

Must it be that way? Is there no way for him to express the candor that made him worth electing, even if it reveals differences with the Clinton-Gore administration as it already has?

Each human rights struggle can take months or years to get through Congress even the bill that creating an independent commission to investigate religious persecution took almost two years. If it had not been for Mr. Lieberman, Rep. Frank Wolf, Virginia Republican, and a few others, that bill, the International Religious Freedom Act, would have failed or been vetoed.

To get it passed, even with drastically reduced powers, the human rights senators had to fight the Clinton-Gore administration, hard and long. For Sudan, the human-rights effort is not simply to get foreign supplies directly to the hungry and sick. It also is to block the oil companies of the West, from investing billions in Sudanese oil production. That would give the Sudanese rulers the money with which it could wipe out all its opponents and victims in Africa's largest nation.

Human-rights violations a pallid phrase. It gives no idea of what it can mean: mass murder, torture, the suppression of every liberty by dictators because they live in fear of their people. There is usually plenty of lobby money oil, investment, trade money to fight human-rights legislation.

I admire Mr. Lieberman's work for human rights except I think his support of more U.S.-China trade can harden the hand of Beijing, long and short run, and hurt American workers.

But still he is invaluable in the struggle for human decencies. I respect his strict observance of Judaism and I often envy the richness religious observance seems to give to life.

Mr. Lieberman says that if he has disagreements with a President Gore, he will abide by all presidential decisions. No president wants public dispute with his vice president; one administration is enough.

But in the coming election the senator's great asset will be public belief that his moral strength will give moral muscle to a Gore administration.

What happens if the president is not willing to help staunch the agonies of Sudanese in a slave train? What if the president is not willing to oppose religious pogroms somewhere as we have refused for a half-century in Tibet? Will the former senator always have to shut his mouth in deference to the president's opinions, even when he believes that sometimes they are conflicting with duty to help the suffering, no matter how far away they happen to be?

Why must it be that way just because it has been? A President Gore could add a second historic step to his selection of a Jew. Before Election Day, he could say that of course he expects and will receive the support and loyalty of the vice president. "But I will give oversight of human rights policies to the vice president. On these I will turn first and consistently to him for opinion and help in making my decisions."

If a human rights disagreement between the two men cannot be settled, the vice president will be allowed to say so and on that issue surrender supervision. This will prevent a former senator honored for his morality and honesty from having to shut his mouth on issues important to all humanity, when his religion says speak. Americans would respect presidents and vice presidents more for it, now and in the future.

A.M. Rosenthal, the former executive editor of the New York Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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