Joe Lieberman and the Buckley connection

Bill Kristol’s most recent Conversation — this one is with former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman (video below, posted in chapters here, transcript here) — does not sound like the most promising episode in Bill’s series, but it is fascinating. It is about one hour long and I found it of interest from beginning to end.

Lieberman comes across as a totally decent man. Politically, he is a Truman Democrat. If there were a political EPA devoted to the protection of endangered political species, Lieberman might still hold office. As it is, for practical purposes, the species is extinct. Lieberman’s account of the final years of his Senate career is intensely interesting.

As I watched the video, it brought back memories of the Buckley connection to Lieberman’s Senate career. This is one angle that Bill doesn’t take up with Lieberman, but it warrants mention.

Lieberman discusses his 1988 race against incumbent Republican Senator Lowell Weicker. Weicker was a wacky and insufferable liberal; Bill Buckley, not unreasonably, detested him.

Lieberman was serving as Connecticut attorney general at the time; he received the Democrats’ nomination to challenge Weicker. Buckley founded a PAC to support Lieberman’s 1988 Senate campaign and it made news. The New York Times’s Clifford May (Cliff is now president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies) called Buckley to ask for an explanation. The resulting article remains of interest 25 years later. Analyze this:

Mr. Buckley said he had “always voted the straight Republican ticket in the past,” but that he could abide Mr. Weicker no longer.

“His pomposity and tergiversations on every issue make his running as a Republican an anomaly we ought to correct,” Mr. Buckley said in a telephone interview from his home in Sharon, Conn.

Those fighting words would probably not startle Mr. Weicker, a third-term incumbent who has long cast himself as the gadfly in the Republican soup, adopting positions well to the left of the Republican mainstream on everything from the invasion of Grenada to prayer in the schools.

The only Republican holding statewide office in Connecticut, Mr. Weicker has rejected proposals that he defect to the Democrats precisely because such a move might give conservatives like Mr. Buckley too much satisfaction. “It’s really the Republican Party that has changed more than I have,” the Senator said in an interview earlier this year.

Mr. Weicker was attending the Republican Party’s national convention in New Orleans today and could not be reached for comment. An aide, however, did manage to inform the Senator that Mr. Buckley had accused him of “tergiversations” – repeated changes of opinion – to which Mr. Weicker’s only reply was “What did he say?”

It wasn’t just that Buckley detested Weicker; he also knew and admired Lieberman:

Asked what he liked about the Attorney General – aside from the fact that he was taking on Mr. Weicker – Mr. Buckley replied that Mr. Lieberman was a man of unquestioned integrity.

“I’ve known Joe since he was at Yale,” he said. “He’s way to the left of me, but I have great personal respect for him.”

Moreover, unlike Mr. Weicker, Mr. Buckley added, Mr. Lieberman “doesn’t have the tendency of appalling you every time he opens his mouth.”

The article concludes with this classic Buckleyite proclamation:

Might one not consider that attack on Mr. Weicker slightly ad hominem?

“Not slightly,” Mr. Buckley replied. “Totally.”

As Lieberaman recalls in the video, he won the 1988 election by 10,000 out of 1,300,000 votes. Buckley’s role in his election cannot have been nugatory, to borrow a Buckleyite formulation. When Buckley died in 2008, Lieberman paid tribute to Buckley on the floor of the Senate as “A remarkable man.” Lieberman duly recalled and acknowledged Buckley’s contribution to his 1988 victory. The Buckley connection lends a poignant aspect to this terrific interview.