Standing up for Joe Lieberman

01/22/2011 03:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Aubrey Sarvis Former Executive Director, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network

Now that Senator Lieberman has announced he will not seek another term for the Senate, many pundits took Alice Roosevelt Longworth's witticism to heart: "If you can't say anything good about someone, sit right here by me."

I'm not going there. I've got something good to say about the former Democrat, now Independent from Connecticut.

For many, gay and straight, asking Joe Lieberman to be the Senate lead in repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" seemed an odd choice. And frankly, some Servicemembers Legal Defense Network supporters initially were skeptical of the choice. They didn't entirely trust Lieberman. But there was one senator who, from the get go, never had any doubt that Joe Lieberman should and would be a critical player in any successful fight on the Hill to repeal DADT. That senator was Ted Kennedy.

Kennedy was known for his tenacious ability to make strategic alliances and court the right partners to win tough fights on Capitol Hill. He was our original and obvious choice to lead the Don't Ask fight in the Senate, but he and his staff were adamant about introducing a repeal bill only when it had bi-partisan support.

Ted Kennedy wanted Lieberman on the train for a host of good reasons. He knew that Lieberman had the respect of the most senior leadership at the Pentagon, especially Secretary Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint chiefs. Kennedy knew their support would be critical if repeal were ever to pass. Kennedy also knew how important it was to keep the lines of communication open, how important it was to build bridges with senators on the other side of the aisle -- and he knew that Lieberman knew that, too.

Kennedy proved to be right. After he became seriously ill and it was obvious he was unable to be our Senate lead, it was Joe Lieberman who agreed to pick up the Kennedy mantle so we could move forward.

Senator Lieberman was in constant touch with Gates and Mullen during the debate and hearings. I have no doubt he was instrumental in Carl Levin's (D- Mich.) decision to sign on as an original co-sponsor of the bill to repeal and throw his full weight as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee behind Senate passage. In the end, it was Lieberman who secured the support of Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) on the final critical cloture vote without which repeal would have gone up in smoke, and it was Lieberman who convinced her to join him in mid-December to put in a standalone repeal bill to keep the process alive and momentum going in the Senate.

Anyone who followed this debate closely knows that without Senator Lieberman's determination and hard work the bill would not have passed the Senate by a 65-31 vote on December 18. It was Senator Lieberman who was on the phone with Secretary Gates in the final weeks and days, and it was President Obama, Gates, and Mullen during the final weeks urging senators to vote for repeal. Eight of those critical votes were Republican. Without those Republican votes, without Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen imploring the Senate to act, there would have been no bill for President Obama to sign on December 22.

This was not an easy fight. Three cloture votes, two of which took place in the lame-duck session. A determined opposition that would not step aside until it was obvious there were more than 60 votes to proceed and win. It should be apparent to all that this battle would not have been won in the Senate without Republican support. Ted Kennedy realized that years ago. He knew that Joe Lieberman could be the bridge to wavering senators on the other side of the aisle.

Even Senator Lieberman's fiercest critics would surely agree that this historical victory in the Senate would not have happened without him -- or Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Committee Chairman Carl Levin. A victory of this magnitude was truly the work of several courageous senators.

But in the end, Senate repeal of this discriminatory law is an important civil rights victory for which Joe Lieberman deserves enormous credit. Surely Ted Kennedy would have been among the first to acknowledge that fact. I don't think we would have won without Joe Lieberman. Now that he has announced his retirement, I will be sorry to see him go.