In Their Own Words: Five Lawmakers on Joe Lieberman

Senators Lieberman and John McCain talk with Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, 2010 (Credit: U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad McNeeley - This image was released by the United States Navy)


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Friends and colleagues of the late Joseph Lieberman, who died Wednesday at the age of 82, remembered the New Haven native as a man with a fierce independent streak and a passion for bipartisan cooperation over a long and distinguished career.

CT Examiner reached out to three Republicans and two Democrats for their thoughts on the former senator who ran for vice president alongside Al Gore, on the Democratic ticket in 2000.

Christopher Shays, a former Republican Congressman from Connecticut’s 4th District, told CT Examiner that he was planning in the next two or three weeks to ask Lieberman to consider running for president on the “No Labels” ticket.

Lieberman had helped found and chaired the “No Labels” effort to recruit a third-party ticket to challenge Democratic Pres. Joe Biden and former Republican Pres. Donald Trump this election cycle.

Rob Simmons, a former Republican Congressman from the 2nd District, called Lieberman his mentor and described how the late senator in 2005 had helped save the Naval Submarine Base New London from closing.

Democrats Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, and former Republican Rep. Nancy Johnson remembered Lieberman an affable man, with a lifelong commitment to civil rights.

In recent months, Lieberman had kept up an active schedule. He attended the Munich Security Conference in February and was still deeply involved in “No Labels” until his unexpected death due to complications of a fall. As recently as March 20, Lieberman penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal offering his strong support for Israel in its ongoing conflict with Hamas.

The following interviews were edited for length and clarity

Former Rep. Christopher Shays (R) 

“He was an honest broker. He was always gracious. I don’t ever remember him being critical of someone in any way, other than maybe criticizing their position, but never the person.”

On Lieberman’s legacy 

“His legacy will be that he was an independent thinker and that he loved public life. His was a memory of effectiveness, kindness and courage. You know, all of the things you want to respect in a person – he had it.”

 On No Labels

“I was going to talk to him in the next two to three weeks about the possibility that he might be the candidate; I was hoping he could somehow be on that ticket. I thought he would add a level of maturity and hopefulness.”

On Lieberman and the late Senator John McCain

“This [Lieberman’s death] is a huge disappointment to a lot of us. Combine that with the loss of McCain; he was also a tremendous loss. I just don’t think that Trump would be getting away with half the stuff he’s getting away with if McCain was still here. McCain and Lieberman were just a wonderful team.”

On Lieberman’s humor 

“I always found myself amused by our conversations. I did not necessarily think of it as being funny, I just thought of them as being happy; they would bring a smile to your face. He was funny without realizing it.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D)

I think what people may not know, but what was very important to me, related to his listening. He was just an extraordinary listener. He wanted to hear and learn from people, even when he disagreed with them. And, on occasion, I would disagree with him….. He had a graciousness and civility that most people never saw in person and it enabled him to be a very effective bipartisan leader and to reach across the aisle and bridge that gap; bring people together …. He was ferociously independent. But, you know, he sensed that he could disagree with you about an issue or a policy and then come together on some other issue or policy. That was also part of his gift.”

On personal conversations

“We talked about everything. Everything from our children; we talked a lot about family. He was very proud of his family. His wife is enormously accomplished. He’d talk about his children and grandchildren. We talked about the Huskies. We talked a lot about Ukraine and the need to support Ukraine. He told me he was very proud of what I’ve done to lead that effort. “

On February meeting at the Munich Security Conference

“We were talking at the Munich Security Conference which is held every year in Munich. We were talking about how the world is looking to the United States for leadership and how important it is that we have that leadership.”

On agreements and disagreements

“I agreed with him a lot, as he was a supporter of civil rights and environmental protection and consumer advocacy and gay rights and women’s reproductive rights. We agreed on a lot, you know, but at the time of the Iraq War, we disagreed, and also on various other issues. When we disagreed, our conversations would almost always end with a smile. Friends disagree and, sometimes, they disagree strongly.”

Former Rep. Rob Simmons (R)

I would describe Joe, in some respects, as a mentor. It kind of began on 9/11.”

September 11th

“On 9/11, Joe and I were both in Washington, D.C. and, of course, the Congress had been evacuated from the buildings. At about 4 p.m., we were invited by the Capitol Police for a briefing on what had happened. I was a member of the Armed Services Committee in the House and Joe was on the Armed Services in the Senate …. I was very interested in what we could learn about the attack and who was involved so I went and Joe went and we sat close to each other, although we didn’t really know each other …. When the briefing was over, the Capitol Police said leadership will be going to the Capitol steps for brief comments, but members were encouraged to go home because it wasn’t safe. So, everyone filed out of the building and I went out and saw Senator Lieberman. I said, Senator, I’m inclined to go over the Capitol steps but, if it’s not safe, why is it safe for leadership? And, he said, I was thinking the same thing, why don’t we go together…. I was thinking, here is this distinguished senator from Connecticut and I am a freshman member of the House and, he, essentially responded to me …. We went over the Capitol steps with probably three other Senators and maybe 60 from the House to listen to speeches quietly. And, then, at the end, we said ‘God Bless America ….’ 9/11 was kind of a bonding moment for us. The next big moment was in May 2005 where the Base Realignment and Closure Commission was meeting.”

On a 2005 meeting on the threatened closure of the Naval Submarine Base New London

“We met in an office building in New London. I was there with members of the Connecticut General Assembly. No other members of Congress were there, but Joe Lieberman was there…. We sat and talked about what our strategy would be.

There were basically three things that could have happened: 1) There would be no closure at all, in which case we would celebrate or 2) They might close a portion of the base, like the submarine school, in which case we would work to try to save it right there or 3) They might close the whole base …. Lieberman’s phone rang and he listened and then hung up. He said they’ve decided to close the whole base. They announced they were going to close the whole base….

Joe could have easily turned to me and say, ‘Well Rob, you know this district is your district and we wish you good luck. And, he also could have said, ‘And, of course, the governor of the state is Jodi Rell and she is a Republican and we wish you both good luck. And, he could have also said, President Bush made the decision to shut down your base so it looks like a Republican thing. He could have said, ‘Have a nice day and let me know if I can help. But, instead he stayed with the group, a mix of Democrats and Republicans, to save the sub base…. He stood up with me and others and said, ‘We must fight this decision; we must do it across party lines. We must not do it as a partisan issue. We must do it for the national security of the United States of America…. In the end, it never closed. Nothing was lost because he put the national interest above the partisan interest.”

Former Rep. Nancy Johnson (R)

“A very thoughtful human being and a fine legislator. And, probably one of the tragedies of our country is that he and John McCain were never able to run together [on a presidential ticket] to save this nation…. He was extremely intelligent in the deep sense of the word. He thought things through as to how they would affect the country in the long run …. He was always great with me. He was such a lovely person to talk to. He and I had been through a lot of similar experiences. He was often a dissenter in his party and I was often a dissenter in my party.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D)

“We have a personal history. I knew his family and he knew my family. We both grew up in the rough and tumble world of New Haven politics… He was just a really beautiful, beautiful man. He was a person of real integrity and his word was his word. I disagreed with him on a number of occasions, but because of the strong foundation of our friendship, we could disagree with one another and still maintain that very strong friendship …. His legacy is one of social justice. He cared about American workers and their need for economic security.”

Robert Storace

Robert Storace is a veteran reporter with stints at New Britain Herald, the New Haven Register, the Connecticut Post, Hartford Business Journal and the Connecticut Law Tribune. Storace covers the State Capitol for CT Examiner. T: 203 437 5950