Joe Lieberman, Former Senator and Vice Presidential Nominee, Dies Suddenly at 82 After Fall

Former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman waves to members of the media as he leaves the West Wing of the White House May 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

HARTFORD, Conn. (Hartford Courant/TNS/Hamodia) — Joseph I. Lieberman, a Democratic former U.S. senator and vice presidential nominee, died Wednesday following complications from a fall.

Lieberman, 82, died in New York City as his wife, Hadassah, and other family members were with him, according to a family statement that was released by longtime aide Dan Gerstein.

“Senator Lieberman’s love of G-d, his family and America endured throughout his life in the public interest,” the family said.

Lieberman’s funeral is scheduled for Friday at Congregation Agudath Sholom in his hometown of Stamford. Another memorial service will be announced at a later date.

Lieberman’s friends and former colleagues — from senators to other top leaders — were stunned by the news Wednesday as word spread quickly among his former staff members and associates.

Lieberman had been in good spirits recently and had spoken to the Hartford Courant in an interview lasting about 30 minutes in late November.

Lieberman, a religious Jew, talked about being in Israel on Oct. 7 — the day Hamas terrorists burst across the border and started killing civilians in a surprising attack. Lieberman traveled to Israel on one of his many trips to visit family and friends, and he heard the sirens blaring.

“We were there that Saturday, October 7,” Lieberman told the Courant. “Oh, man, the sirens went off. Everybody went to the shelters and the safe rooms that they have in their houses. It seemed unreal, but as the day went on, it got painfully real.”

As the attacks continued, Lieberman was far enough away in Jerusalem, which is about 50 to 60 miles from the Gaza Strip.

“A couple of times we heard some booms,” Lieberman said. “But there were no missiles or bombs that fell on Jerusalem. The booms, we were told, were probably Iron Dome batteries that are placed around Jerusalem that probably were activated to shoot down some missiles that were coming in elsewhere. It’s a society that is, unfortunately, trained for moments like this, and they all did what they have to do.”

No Labels leadership and guests from left, Dan Webb, National Co-Chair Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, and founding Chairman and former Sen. Joe Lieberman, speak about the 2024 election at National Press Club, in Washington, Jan. 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Long Career in Politics

Lieberman made history in 2000 as the first Jew to be nominated on a major political ticket when Democrat Al Gore chose him to be the vice presidential nominee. Even years later, Lieberman said he was amazed at the high-profile people he met while on the campaign trail.

At the end of his U.S. Senate career, Lieberman sat for a long interview with the Courant in his Washington, D.C., office.

“In the long term, probably the biggest contribution I’ve been able to make to the country and my state,” Lieberman said, was “all of the post 9/11 reform and reorganization of our government to deal with this unconventional challenge to our security, represented by Islamist terrorism — the Department of Homeland Security, which I co-sponsored; the 9/11 Commission, which (Republican Sen. John) McCain and I introduced and created; and then all of the 9/11 legislation, which reformed and reorganized the intelligence community in the most significant reform since the beginning of the Cold War in the late 1940s, that created the director of national intelligence and national counterterrorism.”

Lieberman explained his unusual career path by saying that “the unimaginable happened in 2000” to launch an unpredictable series of events.

“Trust me, it was beyond unimaginable that I would be considered as a Republican vice presidential candidate (when McCain ran in 2008) and perhaps have the opportunity to take a unique place in history to have run for vice president on two different party tickets — and to have lost twice,” Lieberman said. “G-d saved me from that — or the Republican delegates saved me from that.”

Lieberman’s evolution over the years brought him a series of new friends and supporters, including Republicans like McCain, President George W. Bush, and Fox News commentator Sean Hannity. It also brought him a small army of political enemies who coalesced around a previously unknown anti-war candidate named Ned Lamont to defeat Lieberman in the 2006 U.S. Senate primary.

But Lieberman says he was vindicated with his greatest political victory in November 2006 — winning the general election as an independent despite losing the Democratic primary — made possible by a coalition largely made up of Republicans and independents. That proved to be his final campaign in a career of 40 years in public service, including 24 years in the U.S. Senate.

In Connecticut, many liberal Democrats increasingly soured on Lieberman’s hawkish stances on defense and his support of Republican views. He was at his peak when he made history as the first Jewish American on a major party ticket, but his later views on the war in Iraq prompted many Democrats to deride him as a controversial and divisive figure.

Lieberman supporters believe it was the Democratic Party — more than Lieberman — that changed through the years, as evidenced by the party’s blistering opposition to the Iraq war.

Lieberman himself attributed the change to “a very unusual series of events in which I had different opportunities” involving “different times and different people and different relationships that I had,” including his close friendship with McCain.

The two senators were like brothers in a bond forged by more than 50 foreign trips together to hot spots such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. A McCain victory in 2008 also would have changed Lieberman’s life once again in the same way as the vice presidential decision by Gore.

“I guarantee you if I was elected president, he would have been secretary of state,” McCain said of Lieberman in an interview with the Courant in his spacious Washington office. “I’ll bet you if a president nominated him to be the secretary of state, the vote would be 100 to 0.”

At the other end of the spectrum, hard-core liberals and some true-blue Democrats said they regretted voting for Lieberman in his earlier days and said they would never do so again.

Despite the public clashes with friends, Lieberman always rebounded.

Even though Lieberman supported McCain over Democrat Barack Obama in 2008, it was Obama who stepped in and said Lieberman should remain as the chairman of the Senate homeland security committee at a time when some Democrats were still angry. Although Lieberman was the first Senate Democrat to publicly scold then-President Bill Clinton in a memorable speech on the Senate floor during Clinton’s scandal in 1998, it was Clinton who traveled to Connecticut eight years later to rally support for Lieberman when he was on the ropes in the bitter primary.

Clinton told the crowd that day that Lieberman was his longtime friend, and “I love him.”

Colleagues Mourn Lieberman

As word spread quickly Wednesday, colleagues mourned Lieberman.

“Joe Lieberman was my friend for over 50 years,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “On world and national stages, he helped to define and frame an era of history. He was a fierce advocate, a man of deep conscience and conviction, and a courageous leader who sought to bridge gaps and bring people together. He was dedicated to family and faith, and he was a role model of public service. He never ceased listening to both friends and adversaries. He leaves an enduring legacy as a fighter for consumers, environmental values, civil rights, and other great causes of our time and he was tireless in working for Connecticut no matter how far or high he went. Cynthia and I are with his family in heart and prayer at this difficult time.”

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., tweeted, “In an era of political carbon copies, Joe Lieberman was a singularity. One of one. He fought and won for what he believed was right and for the state he adored.”

Lamont, who is now serving as governor, said, “While the senator and I had our political differences, he was a man of integrity and conviction, so our debate about the Iraq War was serious. I believe we agreed to disagree from a position of principle. When the race was over, we stayed in touch as friends in the best traditions of American democracy. He will be missed.”

Former Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy said, “Joe and I shared Stamford roots, so we go way back. He spent much of his career fighting for people who didn’t, at the time, have a lot of politicians fighting for them. I knew him for a long time, liked him very much, and respected his civility and decency — even when we disagreed, which we sometimes did. The thing I’ll remember most about Joe was that he was a kind, down-to-earth person who never forgot where he came from, even when he made history as the first Jewish vice-presidential nominee of a major political party. Cathy and I send our deepest condolences to Hadassah, and the entire Lieberman family.”

Lieberman addressing the Orthodox Union (OU)

Orthodox Organizations Mourn

Lieberman, who was dubbed the “conscience of the Senate,” was also a longtime supporter of Israel and causes important to the Jewish community, and Jewish organizations mourned his passing.

In a statement, Agudath Israel extended “its deep sympathies and sincere condolences to the Lieberman family.”

“Senator Lieberman was concerned with the Orthodox community’s representation in the secular world, saying that the rising population of Orthodox Jews within the larger Jewish community brought with it ‘a new power, but also a responsibility to represent the Jewish community to the non-Jewish community, to the government, and within the Jewish community itself, guided only by the words of Torah,'” the Agudath Israel statement continued.

Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president for government affairs and Washington director and counsel for Agudath Israel, who had a long-standing relationship with Lieberman, recalled, “I regularly was asked by Jewish students if I knew ‘Senator Lieberman, the Sabbath observant Jew.’ They wanted to know all about Joe. It was clear that he was a source of pride and inspiration to young people. He was an exemplar of Orthodox Judaism to the world. The senator and his Torah observance made an impression on people and intrigued them. People were influenced by, and attracted to, him and his values.”

The Orthodox Union said in a statement that Lieberman “was a member of our community who made history and was mekadesh shem shamayim while doing so.”

“He was a leader on so many critical public policy issues: support for Israel, religious liberty, civil rights, school choice, environmental protection and more,” the OU statement continued. “Throughout his work on these issues and while ascending the heights of American politics, he also remained steadfast in his commitment to and observance of Orthodox Judaism.

“When necessary, he was known to walk from his home to Capitol Hill if he was required to cast a vote on Shabbat. He was a model of integrity and ethical behavior. By the virtue of his example, Joe Lieberman modeled how an observant Jew can engage the world at large, achieve success and notoriety, and remain deeply faithful.  

“The Orthodox Union was privileged to have a close and intimate relationship with Senator Lieberman. In 1998, he was a keynote speaker at a Washington, D.C., event celebrating the OU’s centennial; an event that led to the opening of our OU Advocacy Center in the nation’s capital. After retiring from the Senate, Joe Lieberman collaborated with OU Press to publish a book about the importance of Shabbat in modern times.

OU Kosher CEO Rabbi Menachem Genack said, “Senator Lieberman was a close personal friend. I enjoyed learning together with him weekly for many years. His Yiddishkeit was very important to him, his commitment to Israel was profound, and his loss is incalculable.”

OU Advocacy Director Nathan Diament said, “I was privileged to know Joe Lieberman first as a mentor and then as a friend.  His example, and his exhortation to the OU, led to the opening of the OU Advocacy Center in Washington. Who Joe Lieberman was, what he did and how he did it opened the door wide for American Jews – including Orthodox Jews – to become engaged in politics and the public square.”

Senator Lieberman, z”l, looks on as Rabbi Moshe Sherer z”l, president of Agudath Israel of America, speaks at the the 75th Annual Dinner of Agudath Israel.
Lieberman addresses the 86th national convention of Agudath Israel of America.
Lieberman with ybl”c Harav Shmuel Kamenetsky at an Agudath Israel Convention.

Photos courtesy Agudath Israel Archives

To Read The Full Story

Are you already a subscriber?
Click to log in!