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How Joe Lieberman Tried to Kill Rock'n'Roll

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Joe Lieberman works hard at coming across as a nice man. But as veteran of the music business with a long memory, I can say from experience Joe Lieberman has never been a nice man, just a cut-throat practitioner of partisan politics -- with a big smile. He's up for re-election this fall and everyone should be aware that he's done more in his time to promote government censorship and destroy freedom of speech for artists than any politician on the national stage today.

First a little disclosure. I'm a former punk rock dj, former founder and president of alternative rock label 415 Records, former general manager and vice president of Sire Records and former president of Reprise Records. I am now retired from the music business but there is no question that Joe Lieberman's frontal assault on the music business was something that very much disturbed me. In fact, several of his and his allies' prime targets were personal friends as well as business associates. (And one of the albums he fussed and fretted about most obnoxiously, BODY COUNT, was a record I was Executive Producer of).

Lieberman started his political career in 1970 by going up against a Democratic Party boss Arthur Barbieri and outwitting him in manipulating elderly voters in Crawford Manor, a government-built retirement community, in an election for Connecticut State Senate in which Lieberman was challenging New Haven Democratic incumbent Ed Marcus. Lieberman recognized that parties no longer deliver all the votes and money needed to win elections. You have to build your own machine based on personal loyalty.

Lieberman recognized that too many voters had grown wary of automatically pulling party levers. (This very blue state now has more registered Independents than registered Democrats-- and has been regularly electing Republicans to the Governor's Mansion.) And appearing to the public as a nice guy now counts for more than breaking knuckles in the back room, because the media (especially TV) replaced the party as the prime means of reaching voters. Bland was in. Non-threatening was in. Plus you had to know how to make jokes on Imus and POLITICALLY INCORRECT.

But Lieberman was dealt 2 crucial political defeats before he started his real ascendancy. The party bosses bushwhacked him in a 1978 bid to become Lieutenant Governor and he was defeated in a bid for Congress by a Republican 2 years later. In his self-serving book, IN PRAISE OF PUBLIC LIFE, Lieberman delineates the 3 lessons he took away from that race: to rely on daily tracking polls, to never "let your opponent go negative on you without giving at least as good as you get in return," and, most important, to "never, ever let anyone attack you as a 'high-taxing, big-spending liberal.'" That third one's the one he's based the rest of his career in politics on.

In 1982 he ran for Connecticut Attorney General as a law-and-order candidate inching slightly towards the right and glomming on to an aggressively "pro-family" position that has served him very well. He won. For the next 6 years he marketed himself assiduously to Connecticut citizens. In 1988 he challenged progressive Republican incumbent U.S. Senator Lowell Weicker -- attacking from the right -- and beat him. Lieberman ran a brutal and viciously negative campaign, mocking Weicker personally and even red-baiting him for being soft on Castro (William Buckley formed a PAC to raise money for Lieberman and later Jack Kemp called him "one of us.") Today Lieberman is far more popular in Connecticut with Republicans and with conservatives than he is with Democrats and with progressives, and in 1988 conservatives gave him his small margin of victory over Weicker. Once in the Senate he went even further right and pro-corporate. "He accumulated the most pro-corporate record of any Senate Democrat -- and the millions of campaign dollars that came with them." He joined the DLC and became their president-- before that, the domain of right-leaning Southern Democrats.

This is when Lieberman, like a snake, shed his old skin entirely, discarding the last vestiges of anything vaguely Democratic, and became what he is today: a right-wing demagogue, a really vile politician who belongs in the Republican Party, not the Democratic Party. He made racism quasi-acceptable by framing it as being against unfair affirmative action. An unrelenting homophobe, he joined Jesse Helms' campaign of defamation of gay people and he joined forces with far right extremists like Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed to promote school prayer and voucher programs for religionist schools. And then he got into my own business and my growing hatred for Joe Lieberman turned personal.

The story starts with the founding of the PMRC and if you're too young to remember, you ought to read about that sad chapter in American political/cultural history (in that link back there or either this one here or this Gore-bashing right wing point of view here. The principals' names should all sound familiar: Tipper Gore (wife of Al), Susan Baker (wife of Bush family retainer/fixer James), Nancy Thurmond (one of the Strom wives), Lynn Cheney (lesbian pornography writer and wife of alcoholic current vice president Dick. This gaggle of powerful men's wives was the forerunner of three of Washington's most celebrated, loud-mouthed hypocrites: Bill Bennett, Sam Brownback and, of course, Joe Lieberman, who took up their campaign almost as soon as he was elected.

To quote the Republican National Committee (who hypocritically left out Lynn Cheney's participation in the PMRC, the group's mission "was to clean up raunchy lyrics and suggestive album covers in the music industry. The group pushed for a 'rating system similar to that for films, printed lyrics on album covers and under-the-counter obscurity for covers depicting violence or explicit sexual themes'... In August 1985, under pressure from PMRC and other parents' groups, record companies agreed to place the warning 'Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics' on albums and cassettes containing explicit lyrics. However, for Tipper and PMRC, that language was not enough and the group continued its war on controversial music lyrics," eventually bringing the mess before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Artists like Jello Biafra, Ice-T and Frank Zappa showed how dangerous the PMRC's plans were for freedom of speech and expression, with Zappa explaining to the senators that "the complete list of PMRC demands reads like an instruction manual for some sinister kind of toilet training program to house-break all composers and performers because of the lyrics of a few," adding, dramatically "Ladies, how dare you?... Bad facts make bad law, and people who write bad laws are in my opinion more dangerous than songwriters who celebrate sexuality. Freedom of speech, freedom of religious thought, and the right to due process for composers, performers and retailers are imperiled if the PMRC and the major labels consummate this nasty bargain." (Among the artists specifically attacked by the PMRC were Madonna, Prince, Judas Priest, AC/DC, Def Leppard, Black Sabbath, Cyndi Lauper and Sheena Easton.)

People often ask me what happened and what was the big deal. Lieberman knew exactly what he was doing-- far better than the batty wives' group that preceded him-- when he insisted on ratings on CDs and it had nothing to do with helping parents supervise their children. Few people understand-- the way Lieberman did-- that in the late 80s something like 70% of all recorded music was sold in stores in malls and that malls have very stringent lease arrangements about their tenants not selling "pornography." Over the course of this controversy two of the Senate's most uptight and close-minded prigs, Sam Brownback and Lieberman, pushed for the kinds of stickers that would make it impossible for the kind of music they objected to-- like anything talking about masturbation or homosexuality, for example-- to be stocked by 70% of American retailers. The effect inside the music business was chilling-- and instantaneous. Suddenly a whole new internal bureaucracy had to be created to police every record and suddenly artists were being pressured-- sometimes overtly and sometimes less overtly-- to cave in to demands by two really reactionary fundamentalists whose values are far from mainstream. In one fell swoop Lieberman destroyed an alliance between young voters and the Democratic Party that had started with John Kennedy's election as he ham-fistedly savaged their culture for his own political ambitions.

Paula O'Keefe's insightful 1997 article called "Who Watches The Watchmen?" is an excellent account of Lieberman's fanatical post-PMRC hysterics and extremism on cultural issues which lead to his crazy and ultimately failed 2001 legislation, the Media Marketing Accountability Act, a bill to prohibit the marketing of "adult-rated media," i.e., movies, music, and computer games containing violent or sexual material, to young people under the age of 17. Lieberman sought to empower the Federal Trade Commission to regulate the advertising of music, movies and games to young people. The proposed legislation, if enacted, would have injected a federal agency into decisions about the marketing of movies, music, and electronic games -- and thereby potentially into decisions about what sorts of movies, music, and games are produced.

For part of the time I was president of Reprise an old friend of mine, Danny Goldberg, was chairman of Warner Bros Records, Reprise's parent company. Danny is a inspiring progressive and a brilliant thinker and writer. His book, DISPATCHES FROM THE CULTURE WAR-- HOW THE LEFT LOST TEEN SPIRIT, offers some of the best insights into the real Joe Lieberman anywhere. Danny acknowledges Lieberman's "affable demeanor," but points out his "self-righteous, intolerant, Puritanical streak." When former LBJ advisor Jack Valenti, then head of the movie industry trade organization, and a friend of Lieberman's was asked by Danny if he had ever told Lieberman about the First Amendment implications of the type of censorship he was advocating, Valenti replied, "When people get very religious and they believe their course of action is sanctioned by a higher authority, there's not much you can do to communicate with them-- left, right or center." Hmmm... maybe that's why Bush and Lieberman are always kissing!

Danny explains that while he and other people in the entertainment community have disagreed with politicians like the Clintons and Al Gore on cultural matters, they were still able to support them. "However, he writes, "I would never under any circumstances support or vote for a ticket with Joe Lieberman on it. Not only is he one of the most conservative Democrats with a national profile, but his self-righteousness about religion and venom toward popular culture would make him a serious threat to a free and intellectually diverse American society if he were to gain more power."

Danny isn't alone in his assessment of Lieberman. Scott Goodstein, a long time Democratic political consultant and co-founder of Military Free Zone, was Executive Director of punkvoter when they mobilized and helped register over a million previously unregistered young voters in 2004. Professionally unemotional about politicians, Lieberman comes close to getting his goat. "It's unfortunate that politicians like Joe Lieberman are so out of touch with young voters. He's one of that growing group of politicians who constantly blame music and entertainment as the root of all evil, support un-American legislation like the PATRIOT Act and other forms of censorship, and repeatedly judge and marginalize the next generation without ever having a real dialogue. Lieberman and politicians that use this moral superiority rhetoric instead of focusing on solving real problems-- like the hundred plus education cuts that this administration is currently proposing-- are simply turning off young voters instead of encouraging the next generation to continue their involvement in politics."

A few weeks ago I met Ned Lamont, the progressive Democrat who has challenged Lieberman, at a friend's house here in Los Angeles. He inspired a sense of confidence in me that was the polar opposite of how I reacted when I met Lieberman, basically a smarmy character oozing fake piety, fake openness and fake friendliness. Lamont listened when I spoke and asked all the right questions. I was surprised. A week later my friend Jane spoke with Lamont and mentioned my name to him and he remarked how I had explained the way Lieberman had used the Music Industry-- and youth culture-- as a fund-raising tool by demonizing it and doing all he could to cause discord and disharmony. The Joe Liebermans and Sam Brownbacks of the world are entitled to their moralistic world view but government should not be shoving that down the throats of the whole population. Not every taxpayer feels that if a song mentions homosexuality or masturbation (to go back to the 2 examples that offended Lieberman which I cited above) that it needs to be kept out of record stores. Big government is not an effective or suitable substitute for good parenting. Ned Lamont understood that intuitively. Lieberman will never understand that, just like he'll never understand how disastrous the Bush Regime's occupation of Iraq is for the Israel that drives his decisions.

If you don't vote in Connecticut but would like to see Ned Lamont retire Lieberman from public life, you can help by donating to Lamont's campaign via this ACT BLUE Page. Every cent goes directly to his campaign.

Howie Klein blogs at DOWN WITH TYRANNY.