On Jan. 13, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) vowed to return to the national campaign trail and seek the presidency. And that can only herald one thing: the return of Marcia "Baba" Lieberman.
The 88-year-old mother of Sen. Lieberman may be a little weak in the arthritic knees these days, and she says she's at the point where she really only gets out of her Stamford, Conn., house two or three times a month. But once her son's campaign kicks into high gear, she'll be back out in her wheelchair and back on the hustings with her good friend and handler Moises "Moe" Vela, a former Al Gore staffer and self-described "41-year-old bald, gay Latino." She'll chat up reporters and voters and audiences of senior citizens, telling them all about her son's positions on Social Security, Medicare and prescription drugs, beaming with pride and telling anyone who'll listen just why her son would "make the best president."
Those who follow Sen. Lieberman's campaigns cannot help but learn about the senior Lieberman -- or Baba, as she is often called, using the Yiddish word for grandmother. She's been his volunteer liaison to Connecticut's senior citizens since 1988. The senator peppers his speeches with anecdotes about her and what she's told him. Her first cameo in the 2000 race came during Lieberman's speech accepting the vice presidential nomination from Gore. After the speech, in Stamford, Baba asked her son for a ride home -- a ride that involved a 50-car motorcade -- and then charmingly insisted that then-Vice President Gore, also in the cars, come in for cheesecake and coffee. Marcia Lieberman, dispenser of warmth and wisdom, quickly became an iconic figure in Sen. Lieberman's stump speeches and debates with Dick Cheney.
During a race in which the Democrats struggled to regain their footing on family-values issues, trotting out Baba and the whole close-knit Lieberman clan helped quell fears about Democrats again subjecting the country to the trauma of presidential scandal. The Los Angeles Times described her as "the quintessential Jewish mother."
Baba, for her part, quickly won over the press corps and the Gore-Lieberman campaign staff. Where Gore's mother, Pauline, was a sophisticated lawyer, senator's wife and power player in her own right, Baba, a bakery truck driver's wife with a high-school education and a modest home, came to exemplify the decent, unpretentious working class of yore. And she wasn't afraid of playing the archetypal Jewish mother for effect. When CBS assigned a reporter to follow her one day in Florida, she tried to play matchmaker for the young man. In September 2000, she sent care packages wrapped in brown paper to reporters. Prepared with a little help from the Gore-Lieberman press advance team, they included bagel chips, lip balm, an apple, tissues, postcards for reporters to write their mothers and a handwritten note that read: "Please be kind to my son! Enjoy. Marcia Lieberman (Joe's mom!)." The care packages generated the following inimitable correction in The New York Times:
"A report in the Campaign Briefing column yesterday about gift packages sent to reporters by Marcia Lieberman, the mother of Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, misspelled the brand of bagel chips she included. It is Manischewitz, not Manishewitz."
The stories, like all stories about a candidate's family, had a humanizing effect. Within the campaign, some considered them more valuable than straight policy coverage. "It helps on the family-values side of politics and it also helps to make personal connections with voters in an impersonal age," notes Larry Sabato, a political analyst and professor at the University of Virginia. "Everybody's got a mother and most people care about them."
The Washington Post's Lloyd Grove probed Lieberman's mother's pre-debate jitters the day before Lieberman and Cheney's head-to-head, and ABC's Good Morning America shone a soft spotlight on her care packages.
Charlie Gibson: "And how do these reporters take this kind of bribery?"
Marcia Lieberman: "They love it."
But not everyone found the charm offensive quite so cute. Writing in 2000, Tunku Varadarajan, then the deputy editorial features editor at The Wall Street Journal, found Lieberman's references to his mother "emetic" and "a touch too treacly." "Did it nauseate you a trifle, make you feel mildly ill, instill in you the urge to open the nearest window and let in a gust of fresh air?" he asked. "I'd be surprised -- gobsmacked, even -- if you didn't, at the very least, say 'Yuck.'"
In the post-September 11 environment, Lieberman may run a risk of generating more such sentiments if he talks about his mother as often and as fondly as he did in 2000. Already he's struggling with the "mensch factor," the perception that he is just too nice to steer a country as fractious as ours during these tense times -- and too uninspiring a speaker to fire up a dispirited Democratic base. Though he is the most hawkish of the Democratic presidential candidates, his manner often makes him seem less aggressive than energetic, anti-war former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.). "Is Joe Lieberman Tough Enough?" asked Howard Kurtz in his Washington Post Media Notes column the day after Lieberman declared his candidacy in 2003. It's a question that will no doubt come up again.
"There's no question [the family-values issue] is not as important as it was in 2000," says Sabato, "but the personal and the political are very intertwined in any year, and we often forget how low the turnout is in any of these caucuses and primaries. Often just a few thousand votes make the difference." For Lieberman to have his mother out on the campaign trail "would certainly help with women over a certain age."
Harold Gullan, author of the popular history Faith of Our Mothers: The Stories of Presidential Mothers from Mary Washington to Barbara Bush, says that he's never heard of an instance in which the mother of a presidential candidate was perceived as having too much of an impact on her son's campaign, though wives have certainly generated controversy.
"This is the norm today: No matter how old your parents are, they accompany you everywhere and say a few words, and the more attractive your family is, the more the media can make stories out of it," says Gullan, noting that before Franklin Delano Roosevelt's campaign, it was far less common for mothers to be involved in presidential contests. "I think it's the growth of mass media that's brought the families out."
As for Baba herself, "Right now they're calling on me to speak at convalescent homes," she says. "People my age enjoy hearing what I did on the campaign, hearing stories. I guess I'm a storyteller."
And she's looking forward to seeing Vela again. They're even talking about writing a book together, he says.
"I'm gung ho to get started and with my friend Moe," says Baba. "He's coming with me wherever I go."
"We're going to kick it, aren't we, Baba?" asks Vela.
"We sure are," she replies.