Joe Lieberman knew his life had changed forever when the TV cameras that had been trained for days on his Connecticut house spied him in his underwear making the morning coffee.
That scene happened 20 years ago on Friday and came soon after the news had broken over the Associated Press wire that Al Gore had chosen Lieberman as his vice presidential running mate.
In an extensive interview with Insider, Lieberman reflected on that historic day in early August 2000 when he was surprised to learn he’d become the first Jewish person to join a major party presidential ticket.
Lieberman, now several years retired from the Senate, described the feeling of joining a whirlwind campaign that continued for 35 days beyond Election Day thanks to the legal fight over the razor-thin vote margin in Florida separating Gore and Republican George W. Bush.
He also offered first-person perspective on what’s in store should Joe Biden pick a Black woman in the coming days to run with him against President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. Just like back then, the US is headed toward another election that could take several days or weeks before a winner is declared.
Court battles like the famous one Lieberman was a party to — one that went all the way up to the Supreme Court in 2000 — are also not out of the question.
Here’s a transcript of the interview with Lieberman, lightly edited for clarity and brevity:
Insider: What comes to mind as you think back 20 years ago to when Al Gore made history picking you as the country’s first Jewish vice presidential nominee?
Lieberman: It was on the last weekend, the seventh was a Monday that year. So we were told the decision was being made by the end of the weekend by Vice President Gore. I was at my house in New Haven. And it was pretty clear from what was in the news on TV, etc., that it was down to three, which is really fascinating to look back. His choice was going to be John Edwards, John Kerry or me.
I got a call Sunday evening. Our house in New Haven was surrounded by, over the weekend, by satellite TV trucks. It was really a surreal experience for us. I had been in public life like this. But my wife takes the garbage and she appears on global television. And then we walked to synagogue on Saturday morning and the media follow us taking pictures.
But the funny thing is that on Sunday night… my Senate PR person, my communication director called me to say that he hated to be the one to tell me, but he had just heard from somebody at one of the networks that told them they had heard from somebody who was in the room with Al Gore, this was Sunday night, and he had chosen John Edwards. And I just thought… better to know now.
We pull out a bottle of wine. We made a toast. My mother was there. [I thought:] ‘What a country that I actually got considered this close to being vice president.’
Then everyone’s asleep, and I woke up in the morning, and I was in bed, I went to the remote, turned on the TV and the local reporter, this is like a minute or two before seven, frankly we had trouble sleeping because of the satellite TV trucks, I get up, I flipped on the remote on the TV and I’m still in bed and the local anchor says with the kind of dispassion we like to hear, ‘Now let me repeat that very exciting news, the Associated Press is reporting Vice President Gore has chosen our own Sen. Joe Lieberman to be his running mate.’ I woke my wife up and all hell broke loose.
And I do remember going downstairs, it was summer, so I had my underwear on, to make the morning coffee and I realized that my life was changing because in the two big windows in the kitchen, which are on the ground floor, there’s TV cameras and I immediately run upstairs to put my clothes on.
Insider: How long before Al Gore called you to tell you this news?
Lieberman: It always puzzles people and I frankly never asked him about it because it would almost seem ungrateful, but he didn’t call me until about noon.
I’ll tell you what happened that morning. All hell is breaking loose and it appears to be real. But I called my campaign manager/state director who was a woman named Sherry Brown and I said, ‘This all seems real.’ I had a long scheduled commitment to speak to the annual convention to the state labor council about 11 am that morning. And I said, ‘Do you think I should go?’ She had a contact in the Gore campaign in Nashville. She called and they said, ‘This is definitely for real.’
On the way back from there around noon in the car, and of course cell phones were attached to the car, powered from the car and they were a foot long, a little less, and Al called and says, ‘As you probably know by now, I would like you to be my running mate. But I want to formally ask you.’ And I said, ‘I’d be honored.’ Why he waited til then I don’t know but it didn’t matter.
Insider: Bush campaign’s spokesman Ari Fleischer is quoted in the stories the day of your announcement calling you “a very good man, a man of integrity.” Can you fathom the opposing presidential campaign saying something like that about a VP pick today?
Lieberman: I knew Ari a little bit. I didn’t know him a lot. He later teased me. He said his family lived in New Canaan, Connecticut. So they were my constituents. After the election he said to me, ‘Just between me and you, I’m not so sure my parents voted for Bush-Cheney.’
It was partisan but nothing like today. … You’re right. That the press secretary for the opposing presidential candidate to say something like that about the other party’s vice presidential nominee, it’s hard to imagine that happening today, and that’s a loss, really.
Insider: Joe Biden is potentially on the verge of making history by picking the country’s first Black woman as a running mate. You broke a different barrier. What is in store for Biden’s vice presidential nominee if they do get tapped?
Lieberman: The times are different. Yes, it was divided and partisan. Look at all the conflicts during the recount in Florida. But the division is much more total. The limits of what one side says about the other is quite different. There were some criticisms of me in that campaign that came from the Republicans but it was never the kind of personal stuff that goes on now by both sides to the other side.
I think it’s gonna be terrible this time. So I suppose the vice presidential candidate, whoever it is, they have to feel that they be ready for that.
If it is an African American woman, it will be a first. But the women who are at least referred to in the stories that are the final three, I know some better than others, they’re all very strong, and they’re experienced and I think they’re ready for it. And I believe that, notwithstanding all of the greater amount of division and even coarseness in our politics, I think people will judge them fairly just as I thought they judged our ticket fairly the first time a Jewish candidate was on [the ballot.]
And after all was said and done, the confidence that Al Gore had in choosing me as his running mate was vindicated on Election Day because we did get more than a half million votes more the Bush-Cheney ticket did, which says simply that a majority of clearly the greater number of Americans, it’s not that everybody who voted for Bush and Cheney was voting against us because I was Jewish, but it was clear that the country was totally accepting. And the polling all showed that. I think the same will be true of either of these women mentioned.
Insider: What’s it like to be vetted?
Lieberman: I’ve never been through anything like it.
They went over everything. My record. … They wanted tax records. They wanted questions about my voting record. They sent somebody to read the editorials I had written in 1963 in 1964 when I was editor of the Yale Daily News.
I remember [Gore campaign vetter Jamie Gorelick] joked with me, ‘The two most controversial editorials we read are were positions you took, was one, at least it was controversial on the Yale campus, to aggressively support the co-education of Yale because it was an all-male institution.’ But she said, ‘I don’t think that would hurt you.’ And the second was that I’d called for the American recognition of a country that we then referred to as ‘Red China.’
It was quite exhaustive, and I was interviewed more than once. People around me were interviewed. Most of my staff didn’t know this was going on because I was trying to keep it quiet from everybody. And then at the end I was called to sit with Al Gore at the vice presidential residence. The press was hanging out in front of the house there. So they sent someone from the vice president’s staff to pick me up in a van that had tinted windows, so they couldn’t see when I went in.
Al and I had become friendly so I remember him saying at the beginning of that, after we said hello and talked about odds and ends, and [things] not related, he said, ‘Joe, this is awkward cause we’re friends but I really have to ask you questions.’ It was a good session. And I felt good about it when I left but I had no idea whether it was going to be me or not. I guess I still thought it was going to be unlikely.
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