Senator Joseph Lieberman spoke last night at the annual Commentary Fund dinner at New York’s University Club, which I attended. Although he termed it a “lecture,” his address was in fact a history lesson, one that–in light of the past week’s events–it appears the country badly needs.
Lieberman reviewed the bipartisan war that both American political parties waged against fascism and then communism in the 20th century. He traced the committment to fighting totalitarianism that ran from Roosevelt to Truman to Kennedy to Reagan. After a near-collapse during the Carter presidency and abandonment by a series of failed Democratic presidential candidates, that tradition of support for freedom and opposition to tyranny, he contended, was restored and became a mainstay in the Clinton administration. He praised Clinton’s willingness to use American military power in Bosnia to prevent ethnic cleansing in Europe’s midst. And he maintained this was the essential platform that he and Al Gore ran on in 2000.
With obvious pained disappointed he argued that his once stalwart Democratic party has in fact fallen prey to isolationism and defeatism. He spoke of his decision to endorse John McCain, who, he contends, understands the stakes in Iraq and more generally America’s role in the world. As for his own historic party, he is not yet ready to give up on the notion of a Democratic Party devoted to a muscular defense of American interest and thus remains an “Independent Democrat.”
What to make of the address? I confess I came away wondering how the American political alignment on this issues would have turned out had that Florida vote gone differently in 2000. But overwhelmingly, I felt a sense of regret that he really is a voice in the wilderness, without bitterness but nevertheless alone, in his struggle to return the Democratic party to its robust national security position. Still, his erudite and good-humored address reminds us that those in public life (and those who write about it) are obligated to teach and reteach the lessons of the past. Without them– properly told and properly understood–we are lost. And never more so than now.