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Lieberman Waxes Nostalgic for Good Old Days of Broadcasting

By Dana Calvo, The Los Angeles Times, Wednesday 20 September 2000

ALBUQUERQUE--He looks like Capt. Stubing from The Love Boat, waving from the door of his chartered plane dressed in a blue blazer, poking fun at himself and the political process that might make him the next vice president.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a 58-year-old Orthodox Jew, can't resist talking about his mother, described by a family friend as the kind of woman who gave young Joseph a standing ovation every morning when he came down for breakfast.

He gently ribs his wife, Hadassah, for periodically getting more ink than he does after campaign stops. When a supporter in a Denver union hall held a sign with her name on it Sunday, Lieberman couldn't hold back.

My wife is getting to be like Madonna--just one word, he said.

It's the political equivalent of take my wife--please, and even to the trained cynic, it's fun.

But, though the Catskills humor that has become the trademark of Lieberman's campaign plays well to crowds on the trail, it has made Hollywood uneasy as he publicly scolds the industry for making excessively violent products that children can see. It's an ironic juxtaposition for a man who obviously loves the stage, and admits to feeling nostalgic about what Hollywood used to mean for him.

I may be a critic of television because I love television and I'm a child of the television age, he told The Times during a brief conversation on Monday morning in a small holding room in the back of an Albuquerque cultural center. Much of his appreciation of humor, a trait that is one of his most notable characteristics, emerged from hours in front of shows like I Love Lucy and Sid Caesar's Show of Shows.

Television once educated Lieberman, and it also drew his family together in the evenings.

I used to watch the Kefauver hearings [on organized crime] and the Army-McCarthy hearings. This was drama to me. And then, of course, the whole Kennedy-Nixon campaign and the Kennedy presidency, he said. But beyond that, television was enormous fun. And it was family fun in the sense that we used to sit around and watch it together.

At Yale, he was a member of a group called The Pundits, which met for lunch once a week with R.W.B., a writer and critic of American writers, who served as the group's advisor. We met for no other purpose than to sit around and try to be funny with one another, Lieberman said. It was a skill he found to be priceless when he got into politics in the early 1980s.

I found that when I got into public life I really enjoyed telling stories either to make a point or to break through the kind of formality of politician-speaker and audience, he said.

But the humor that shaped his personality and, in a way, his method of practicing politics, is rarely seen in pop culture now, he says. For Lieberman, today's television fare just isn't what it used to be. When asked what his favorite current comics are, he offered up Bill Cosby and Billy Crystal.

While he can't bring back the shows of his youth, he has tried to protect young people from violent content. In a letter to the FCC four months ago, Lieberman and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) complained about sexual vulgarity and violence on the airwaves. The lawmakers requested the agency consider examining TV programming when station owners try to renew their broadcast license, which the agency is now doing via public hearings.

Balancing Crusade and Campaign Contributions

His crusade against the entertainment industry has presented an otherwise boisterous campaign with a sometimes tense and sober balancing act. Is it brazen hypocrisy? Or is Lieberman simply not afraid to scold his wealthy Democratic friends when he disagrees with them even as he takes their contributions?

The senator's last two weeks on the trail were emblematic of that tightrope.

He asked the entertainment industry for a cease-fire on Capitol Hill last Thursday after a Federal Trade Commission reported the entertainment industry targets teenagers with inappropriate, adult-themed materials. The report added that Hollywood does not consistently follow its own rating system in pitching products to teens.

But that evening he headed to New York, where he and Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic candidate for president and Lieberman's running mate, appeared on late-night comedy shows and then collected $6.5 million from a mega-star musical gala at Radio City Music Hall.

There, comic John Leguizamo made comments about oral sex so risque that they can't be published here, and Bette Midler, performing in a tight ivory-colored dress, made a joke about a prostitute.

Then she talked about her new sitcom.

Yes, Joe Lieberman is smiling at me now, but just wait until sweeps, she quipped.

The next morning, Lieberman drove to Astoria, N.Y., to appear on the Don Imus radio show, which is heard mornings on KRLA-AM (1110) in Los Angeles. The Imus show has been criticized for its irreverence, most recently in May by TomPaine.com, a political advocacy Web site, which placed a paid advertisement on the New York Times' op-ed page saying Imus's show contained sexist remarks and slurs against minorities, gays and foreigners.

Lieberman simply sees Imus as an effective platform for talking to an estimated two million listeners.

I started doing Imus's show about 10 or 11 years ago . . . in part, because it was an opportunity to speak to a lot of people on serious issues, which he does give you, Lieberman said. But also to joke around a little bit.

The irony of Lieberman's 24-hour trip from Capitol Hill to Radio City to Imus was not lost on the Republicans. After word spread of the Radio City event, the wife of GOP vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney appeared on three Sunday morning talk shows, describing the gala as X-rated.

The dance continues. Lieberman believes in his crusade, but he doesn't want to appear so out of touch that Hollywood rebels against the Democrats. Look, he said smiling, I must say I have a certain ribald side to me.