Speaking at John McCain’s memorial service Saturday, Joe Lieberman celebrated the Arizona senator’s public life, their friendship and, inadvertently, McCain’s decades-long fight to weaken the influence of money and special interests in Washington.
Lieberman, a Democrat, and McCain, a Republican, were best friends in the Senate, hawks who stood together across party lines on questions of global intervention and national security, core values Lieberman highlighted.
They also traveled to conflict zones and geopolitical hot spots together for years, a tradition that Lieberman wove through the eulogy, pulling examples that spoke to McCain’s character and sense of humor.
”One of John’s favorite cities in the world was Jerusalem, and one of his favorite things to do there was to stand on the balcony with Lindsey [Graham] and me of our hotel looking out at the old city and discussing all of the religious and political history that happened there over the centuries,” Lieberman said.
McCain, he said, even came around to his decision not to run for reelection in 2012 because of the outside chance it might mean more trips to Jerusalem. “You know,” Lieberman recalled McCain saying, “I’ve been thinking if you go out into the private sector, you’re going to make some more money, and then you can afford to buy a second home in Jerusalem that has an extra room for me with a balcony where we can look out at that city and its history.”
McCain was needling his friend for cashing in. It was funny because it’s true.
Lieberman left office and began lobbying for various interests. He also joined the white-collar crime group at the law firm Kasowitz, Benson & Torres. Lieberman was criticized last year when he went to Capitol Hill to introduce President Trump’s nominee for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, without disclosing that the firm had done extensive — and expensive — work for Donald Trump.
Lieberman didn’t seem embarrassed to bring up his new line of work Saturday. He even revisited it a second time during the eulogy, describing how McCain was still goading him about it years later. Lieberman recounted what McCain said to him several times after falling ill:
“Joey, have you made enough money yet to buy that place in Jerusalem?” McCain would say when Lieberman would visit. Lieberman would reply, “Not yet, Johnny, but I’m getting closer.”
The crowd chuckled.
Lieberman’s description of his post-Senate life shows how ordinary the system of money and influence is to political insiders. Members of Congress take money from lobbyists to fund their campaigns, and then when they retire, they often walk through the revolving door to K Street, where a lucrative lobbying job awaits with deep-pocketed special interests.
Professors at Georgia State University and the University of Exeter, in the UK, tracked members of Congress from 1976 to 2012 and found that 28 percent of Republican senators and 25 percent of Democratic senators became lobbyists once they retired.
Notorious superlobbyist Jack Abramoff used the promise of lucrative lobbying jobs to get lawmakers to do his bidding. He’d get members of Congress to get earmarks and other legislative items for his clients and would wink and nod (or explicitly promise) members of Congress a cushy, high-paying job at a lobbying firm if they did it.
McCain had already been pushing to change the rules around the revolving door when Abramoff was arrested in 2005 and Congress passed a bill that put in place a number of new safeguards. Post-Abramoff, lawmakers had to wait longer before lobbying, they couldn’t go on trips paid for by lobbyists (another policy McCain long supported), and they couldn’t sit down to eat fancy meals with a lobbyist (though they can still eat anything that fits on a toothpick).
McCain was the leading Republican voice on campaign finance reform for years, well before it was a hot topic on the trail as it is now. He understood that even the perception of corruption causes the public to lose faith in government. And he understood it would require bipartisanship to get any changes through Congress.
He worked on a bill with Democrat Russ Feingold called the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which sought to close loopholes and tighten donor limits. Even though it didn’t strive to fundamentally upend the system, it was arguably a triumph for its day. The Supreme Court struck down pieces of the law in a series of cases, including Citizens United in 2010, which effectively killed it.
(McCain wasn’t a purist in his own career. He was once investigated for alleged campaign finance abuse in what became known as the “Keating Five scandal.” And Obama challenged his commitment to “draining the swamp” on the campaign trail in 2008 because several of McCain’s top advisers were lobbyists.)
Still, through most of his career, McCain was an outspoken advocate for reform. He skewered Obama in 2008 for turning down public financing. And he arguably helped start a serious national conversation about money and politics.
“The reforms I believe we are about to pass will not cure public cynicism about politics,” McCain said in a statement when his campaign finance bill passed in 2002.
“Nor will it completely free politics from influence peddling or the appearance of it. But I believe it might cause many Americans who are at present quite disaffected from the practices and institutions of our democracy to begin to see that their elected representatives value their reputations more than their incumbency. And maybe that recognition will cause them to exercise their franchise more faithfully, to identify more closely with political parties, to raise their expectations for the work we do.”
That McCain’s best friend would bring up his new job lobbying for special interests during his eulogy is a reminder of how much the establishment accepts the system and how hard a battle McCain faced to change it.
Lieberman ended his eulogy imagining that McCain is on a balcony somewhere overlooking the old city, contemplating his life. Maybe he’s still needling his friend.