Lieberman Extols Public Service,
Urges Others to Get Involved
February 21, 2000
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., is a great believer in the value of public service.
So much so, in fact, that he wrote a book, In Praise of Public Service: A Response to Its Critics, to urge Americans at least to vote, if not to work actively in the public sector.
As part of a tour to promote the book, Lieberman spoke Wednesday at the Konover Auditorium in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center in a session - and booksigning - sponsored by the UConn Coop.
"The book is my attempt to respond to the growing cynicism and disengagement of more and more people from the political system," he said. "I'm trying to get people to re-engage and to get some of you to catch the spark from the idea that you can make a difference to get involved."
Lieberman noted a "disconcerting and stunning" drop in the percent of Americans who vote - less than 50 percent in the presidential election in 1996, the lowest since 1924 - and just over a third of eligible voters in the 1998 congressional election, the lowest since 1942.
"Two-thirds of Americans in the last election didn't have enough engagement in the system to come out and vote," he said. "That's a disconcerting sign for those of us who say this is the greatest democracy in the world."
He said he asked a recent group of interns if they think about going into public life after they graduate. A number of them do, but they say hardly any of their friends at college even talk about it.
"They see that politics has gotten so nasty, so partisan and that people don't have a private life," Lieberman said. He added that students today are generally more community-oriented than they were 10 or 20 years ago, noting that they are more interested in such professions as teaching.
"Not everyone wants to make a trillion dollars in the 'dot.com' industry," he said.
Lieberman said it is up to the people within the political system to draw Americans back into greater participation.
"Politics is now much too partisan," he said. "That can be healthy because the two-party system is the way we bring minorities together to form a majority. I spent 10 years in the Connecticut legislature. There were good Democrats and good Republicans, but most of the time we worked together across party lines."
Washingtonians, he said, tend to put representatives on the "Red Team" or the "Blue Team" even though they were elected by voters from both parties as well as independents.
"Too much of it seems to be posturing for party purposes," Lieberman said. "We have to break through this. We have to compromise to get things done. If not, people have less confidence in government. There's too much nastiness in politics."
That negative approach has shown up in the presidential primary campaigns of both parties this spring, he noted.
"If Kmart spent all of its advertising money criticizing Wal-Mart, and Wal-Mart spent all of its money criticizing Kmart, few people would want to shop at either store," Liberman said, drawing an analogy with the business world.
He said that despite partisanship and name-calling in Washington, Congress is still able to craft bipartisan agreements with President Clinton, citing welfare reform and the balanced budget as two examples.
Citing his own "outsider, newcomer" surprise election to the Connecticut Senate in 1970 and his upset of incumbent Sen. Lowell Weicker in 1988, Lieberman said the American political system remains "remarkably open."
"The John McCain campaign should give people hope about the openness of the system," he said.
Even though George W. Bush had been supported by almost 40 Republican Senators and McCain by only four, "that all turned around in New Hampshire," where McCain won by 19 percentage points, Lieberman said.
"He had a message about his own life story and a surprising number of people responded to it, and his campaign took on a whole new dimension. I present that as evidence that it can still happen."
Lieberman said Americans today are a "blessed generation," but that should not be taken for granted.
"There's never been a generation more free, more successful and more secure," he said. "But that can slip away."