Comedians lost a dependable villain this week: Joe Lieberman announced his retirement in 2012. We'll always remember Joe Lieberman as the man who killed the public option, who campaigned against Barack Obama, and who kissed George W. Bush at the State of the Union. But Lieberman wasn't always evil. Before he was a traitor, he was a deluded, stubborn presidential campaigner, and before that, he was just boring. Before that, he was a good loser and faithful Democrat, and before even all that, he was just Jewish.
As he prepares to move on to that well compensated lobby in the sky, let's take a look back at Joe's transformation over the years, as told through our comedians.
When Joe Lieberman first entered the national stage in 2000, we knew little about him. So the media concentrated on the one thing we were sure of: Joe Lieberman was an orthodox Jew. While this was a milestone of inclusiveness for the time, it was a chance to dip into that rich American tradition, Jewish humor. This time, though, gentiles could tell jokes too.
Jon Stewart to Joe Lieberman: Don't Fuck This Up
Judy Gold: Joe Lieberman's Mother
The Onion: Albert's Choice
Jay Leno: "If Lieberman wins, he won't be the first Jewish-American to hold the presidency in his hands. That was Monica Lewinsky."
As we grew familiar with Senator Lieberman, we moved past his religion, and began to see him as a man. A crushingly boring man.
In 2002, Saturday Night Live was hosted by Al Gore. This critically acclaimed episode was the start of Al Gore's rebirth, transforming from the wooden presidential candidate to the dashing, funny environmental crusader. Re-imagining the Vice Presidential selection process as an episode of the Bachelor, Gore courted Lieberman (perfectly played by Chris Parnell) in a hot tub. Gore knew Lieberman was his man when they looked each other in the eyes and said, "Lockbox." (If you subscribe to Hulu or Netflix, it's Season 28, Episode 8.)
The Onion: "Lieberman pledges to gloss over the boring issues"
After the Bush v. Gore decision, the media was sympathetic to Lieberman for winning the election but losing the office. And until 9/11 he played along, even making appearances on the Daily Show to take shots at W.
Lieberman's doomed presidential candidacy in 2004 was the inspiration for classic humor, much of it unintentional and from his own mouth. He referred to his fifth-place finish in New Hampshire as a "three-way tie for third place," and predicted that he would ride to victory on his campaign's "Joementum." Much of the dignity he showed in 2000 washed away in the 2004 campaign, and this cleared the way for the new, desperate, backstabbing Joe in the years to come.
The Onion: Democrats Somehow Lose Primaries
Late night went crazy over Lieberman's quixotic campaign. You can't honestly describe Jay Leno as funny, but as a historical document, he's invaluable. When it comes to regurgitating the conventional wisdom in its simplest form, no one's better: "I feel great, I'm on the new Joe Lieberman diet. No matter what I do I just keep losing and losing and losing."
For his 2006 Senate reelection, Connecticut Democrats punished Lieberman for his staunch Iraq war support by choosing liberal candidate Ned Lamont. Joe ran and won as an independent, and the development sent him and George Bush running into each other's arms.
Even in 2006 the Bush administration could claim, with a straight face and enough success, that anything their political opponents did gave aid to terrorists. According to Dick Cheney himself, Joe Lieberman's loss was Osama bin Laden's win.
The Onion: Lieberman Defeated in Primary
This was no longer the Lieberman of 2001 who could appear on the Daily Show for light banter. Unable to get him on his show, Stephen Colbert began a campaign to entice Lieberman to be his guest, offering a comfy leather chair, Cocoa Puffs, a DVD of Mystic River. Unsuccessful and spurned, Colbert finally told Lieberman he could just sit in the audience:
By 2008 the transformation was complete. Lieberman turned on the Democrats and campaigned against Barack Obama, even speaking at the Republican National Convention on behalf of John McCain. This should have completed his conversion to the dark side, and thus our story, but there were still twists to come.
Lieberman's RNC speech gave Jon Stewart the occasion to debut his Droopy Dog impersonation.
The Onion: Lieberman's Overlords Most Displeased
As we know, this plan didn't go so well for Lieberman, and his support wasn't enough for McCain/Palin to win. There were calls throughout the Democrats and the media for punishment to be exacted on him. But Obama's conciliatory nature prevailed. Joe was forgiven and allowed to keep his seniority and committee chairmanship.
The Senator could barely contain his enthusiasm.
Fool Me Twice Joe
Now Joe had an opportunity to show the Democrats his gratitude. He did this by killing the public option, the central platform in the Democrats' health care reform plan. He even threatened to filibuster his own party.
This, finally, was the last straw. David Rees, of Get Your War On fame, was moved to write 10 Jokes about Joe Lieberman and his threat to filibuster any health care bill which includes a public option." Number One:
1. Joe Lieberman walks into a bar with a parrot on his shoulder. The bartender turns to him and says, “Sorry, we don’t serve bitter old egomaniacs here. And fuck your stupid parrot.”
The most evil aspect of Joe's threat was his admission that he didn't even know what was in the bill, but would filibuster it anyway. Colbert coined a new word to describe Lieberman's political affiliation: Hermaphropublican.
Don't Ask, Don't Tell Joe
To his credit, he did help with Don't Ask Don't Tell. But for most, it was too late to save Joe's name. Too many times crying wolf, too may footballs pulled right when we were about to kick. At best, the political reaction was cynical. As one blogger noted, "Of course, he wants gay people in the military. He wants everyone in the military." Even now that the repeal is in the books, we still wait for Joe to tell us what the catch is.
Stephen Hoban is a writer living in New York.