WASHINGTON — Sen. Joe Lieberman was driving somewhere in New Jersey, where he was to meet with some political supporters, when he returned my call by cellphone.
I told him that years ago the elder George Bush, in his first run for the presidency, had appeared on "Meet the Press." I, as a panelist, had asked him about his vision for America, and Mr. Bush had said, if elected, he'd bring a "compassionate conservatism" to the country.
"What I'm leading up to, Senator," I went on, "is this: That's where George W. got his 'compassionate conservatism' that he promised the country during the last presidential campaign - from his father's words, words that the elder Bush rarely if ever used again."
"So," I asked, "what do you say, Senator, of George W.'s vision? What you would bring to this country if you make it to the White House?"
"Well, to begin with," said the man that some pollsters and observers see as the front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination, "this president didn't fulfill that promise of compassionate conservatism - of governing from the center and not the right. His governing has been from the right - and not compassionate."
Then, turning to his own vision for America, Mr. Lieberman said, "It's a great time to be running for president. The country is at a crossroads. I haven't seen the American people as uncertain about their future [as they are today]. I think I can restore confidence and hope.
"I want to keep the American dream alive. That means to me that no matter what you are or where you started, if you work hard and follow the rules, you ought to go as far as your God-given talents will take you.... America is the opportunity country. I want to make that opportunity real again for all Americans.... We must get the economy going again and invest in education, and enforce our civil rights laws. And, of course, there is the basic promise of security that must be fulfilled - particularly after September 11."
I had been prompted to interview the senator by a letter printed in the Monitor following my May 6 column, "A second term is Bush's to lose." The letter-writer, J. Hilton Turner from New Wilmington, Pa., conceded that Bush might well be reelected, but sharply criticized the president's foreign and domestic policies. He then asked, in effect: Is there a candidate with a vision to rival Bush's?
Perhaps Mr. Turner will find in Lieberman's vision the "humane concern" that he thought was lacking in the president's. Lieberman didn't bring his outlook on foreign affairs into those brief comments - but he has strongly backed the president in the war on Iraq. This might not please our letter writer. Indeed, the fact that Lieberman is regarded as the most hawkish on the Iraq war among the leading Democratic candidates is both a political deficit and asset as he reaches for the presidency. He will have to run in some primaries that will be dominated by liberal Democrats who strongly opposed the war. But, if nominated, Lieberman's pro-war position will help him contest with a president whose popularity rests heavily on his performance in the quick victory in Iraq.
Just listening to Lieberman for a few minutes, I was reminded how warm and genial he is. (Indeed, I'm reminded of how, in the recent South Carolina debate among the Democratic candidates, the moderator, George Stephanopoulos, jokingly suggested he might be too nice to be president and not tough enough to take on Bush. Smiling, Lieberman shot back, "I'd like to come over there and strangle you, George.") And Lieberman is a man who has won respect among his colleagues for hanging tough on issues and standing up for what he believes in - even when it's not politically smart to do so.
Back in 1980, Ted Kennedy ruined his presidential chances when he was asked in a TV interview about his vision for the presidency and he could only splutter and paw the ground as he tried to come up with an answer.
Lieberman knows - it seems to me - why he wants to be president and what he will do in the job if elected.