Remembering Joe Lieberman

We were instructed not to move. A long row of photographers waiting on the tarmac at Bradley Airport for CT’s senator Joe Lieberman to arrive and start his cross country campaign for vice president. Our cameras had all been inspected, camera bags laid out on the ground to be checked by secret service and then by their canine companions. Once cleared we waited, a soft warm breeze blowing hair into my face on this spring morning in 2000. My legs were slightly spread in a stance that would ground me if there was any pushing and shoving for a shot.

For 10 days I’d be the photographer for the Hartford Courant on a campaign leg that would take us to Maine and Chicago and Seattle, among other places. I had photographed Joe Lieberman for over a decade at the Courant, since the early days when he was campaigning to become the state’s junior senator in 1988. On a similarly balmy day during his first campaign, I followed him for a few hours in Middletown, CT.  He glad-handed men and women on the street, kissed babies, laughed easily with old and young alike. At about the same time, we both spotted a boy about 5 wandering alone, and stepping absentmindedly into traffic. Joe grabbed his hand gently and bent down.

“Where’s your mom?”

The boy shrugged.

“Where do you live?

Again he shrugged.

Still holding the boy’s hand, he asked people out on their stoops if they knew the boy. No-one did.

“Well then,” he said, “let’s go find where you live.”

He hoisted the boy up on his shoulders and said ‘let me know when you see your building.” We walked for a couple blocks and then the boy pulled at Joe’s curly hair and pointed. He was home.

He looked up at the second floor window and called for his mom who looked out. The mom, terrified, ran down, afraid Joe was a cop or state worker.  He generously shook her hand, lifted the boy off his shoulders and handed him to his mom. She profusely thanked him and he said “vote for me in November.” They both laughed and we carried on.

Wherever we went, his ease and genuine love of people, all people, radiated. His smile filled his face as he connected with a handshake, a hug, a high five.

Now he was the first Jewish candidate for the vice president of the United States. Orthodox Jewish at that. Al Gore was the man at the head of the ticket. They would go on to win the popular vote in November but lose in the electoral count to George W. Bush. But it was still months away from that. Joe got out of his chauffeured car, spoke with some aides and then walked towards the plane and waiting throng of press.  He waved, we clicked, and when I had what I needed, I lowered my camera and waved at him. He stopped, spread his arms wide and said “Shanala, so glad you’re here.” I was both proud and embarrassed.


He was like that, a true mensch. So was his mother.  She boarded the plane before we left for Chicago, slowly moving through the aisle with small bags of homemade cookies in individually packed brown bags. “Be nice to my son,” she said as she handed them out. “He’s a good boy.”

We crisscrossed the midwest, boarding and deplaning so many times in a day, we didn’t know where we were after a few days. The rally halls and meeting spaces looked the same.

When Friday afternoon came around, there was a shared mantra on the plane “Thank God for Shabbat.”  As an Orthodox Jew, Joe didn’t campaign, drive, write, talk on the phone, or conduct any manner of work from Friday sundown to after sunset on Saturday night. We had a whole precious day off.  Our colleagues on Al Gore, Dick Cheney and George W’s planes worked with no days off for weeks and months. We landed in Seattle a few hours before sundown on Friday. I was towards the end of the line of photographers and reporters waiting to check into the hotel the Lieberman campaign had booked us into. I was chatting with fellow photographers from the NYT and the LA times as we moved closer to check in. The line slowed. There were no more rooms. Staffers were making calls and then rounded up the last 7 of us and walked us a few blocks to a newly built luxury hotel called W. We joked about being the chosen people after we’d seen the breathtaking rooms with glass sinks and showers, super modern everything and robes so thick I didn’t want to take it off after my shower. I’d never stayed in anyplace so nice. The Courant was paying all the bills for the trip – the travel on the plane, the rooms, the meals. Like most large, ethical newspapers, they wouldn’t accept any freebies ever, especially from politicians. When I was hired, I’d been read the riot act about never setting up a picture or taking even so much as a cup of coffee from a subject of a story. Both were firing offenses. I’d bent the food and coffee rule a few times, because it’s just plain rude to turn down an offering of a snack or a meal when working on a story, but I was very careful with people in power.  Only once, a time I was reprimanded for, I couldn’t resist. I was working on a magazine story about Governor John Rowland, and every Tuesday at the governor’s mansion, it was his night to cook for his kids, and his specialty was ricotta and pea pizza. I’d followed him all day without a bite to eat, and now the reporter and I were in his kitchen, and he’s slung an apron over his work clothes and the smells emanating from the oven were sublime. I turned down the offer of wine, but when the pizza came out, I eagerly accepted two slices on my plate. The reporter passed and glared at me. I shrugged, savoring the delicate flavors, and heaping praise for his cooking. I understood the dangers of accepting gifts, but also understood that people bond over food, and how dangerous could two slices be.

Back on the plane, zigzagging the country on Sunday, we made a stop for the plane to gas up. There was a delay on the ground, so Joe got up and walked down the stairs to the tarmac. I followed him with a camera. For some reason, no-one else did. Outside, he started doing jumping jacks, stretches. I clicked away, looking over my shoulder. Still no-one.


When I filed my pictures that night, the one of him exercising delighted the news desk. Two days later, though, I got a call to come home.


“Budget cuts. Chicago will take over and provide pictures for the whole chain.”

“Chicago?” I protested. “But he’s OUR senator? That guy doesn’t even know Joe, he has no connection to him. Look at what I’m getting because he likes and trusts me.”

“I’m sorry, we just got the word. There’s nothing we can do.”

I said good-bye to Joe, to my new friends, and to the secret service guys who were in the back of the plane putting in their requests to  skydive with George H. W. Bush on his 75th birthday as part of his security detail.

It was a joyful moment in time. I loved seeing the excitement that greeted Joe wherever we went. It also, as seen through the long lens of time, marked an interesting time for politics and journalism.  The Al Gore/Joe Lieberman ticket won the popular vote, but didn’t get to the White House because they lost the electoral vote, something we saw happen again to Hilary Clinton in 2016.  In journalism, I left the plane because it was perceived by editors that one photographer could cover news for a chain of papers, that individual voices didn’t add enough to warrant the expense. The Courant had recently been purchased by Tribune Company, that also owned the Chicago Tribune, the LA Times, Baltimore Sun, and Newsday. It was the beginning of consolidation and cutbacks, a subtle chipping away of quality in favor of ‘click bait,’ a shift that would turn into full on slash and burn when Sam Zell would purchase the chain in 2007. At the time, though, they represented a promise that resonated with voters, and I was glad to experience that, if only for a week.

Joe, Rest in Peace, and may your memory be a blessing.


8 Responses

  1. Shana- this is absolutely perfect. You captured his essence, his being, his kindness. Well done, my friend!

  2. Remarkable recollections with a point. I’m glad I don’t need to compete against you to keep my job. Thst story about the kid in Middletown should be retold — and probably isn’t because the fellow pols and handlers control the storytelling. The business misses you more than you can know.

    1. Somewhere in this basement office of mine is the picture of him carrying that boy on his shoulders. Hopefully I’ll find it and will add it! Thanks for your kind words!

  3. Thank you, Shana, for outstanding photo journalism. I’m now a widow living in NC where no one around me remembers or cares about Joe Lieberman or CT. Much appreciation for all you did during your years at the Hartford Courant and for your friendship.

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