Editor’s note: In this column, Conason points out that the Connecticut senator who would lecture us on ethics drafted a bill in 2005 that made generous giveaways to pharmaceutical companies — one month after his wife went to work in the pharmaceuticals division of a major lobbying and PR firm.

Whenever Sen. Joseph Lieberman complains that he is the target of a “single-issue” challenge by upstart millionaire Ned Lamont, the three-term incumbent proves he doesn’t quite get what is happening to him. It is true that the Lamont campaign began as a protest against his slavish support of the war in Iraq. It is untrue that growing antiwar sentiment is the sole reason for his peril in next month’s Democratic primary.

That he would dismiss the disastrous occupation as merely “one issue” suggests how remote he is from his constituents — the great majority of whom now view the war as a costly strategic and moral error that should be concluded as soon as possible. He sounds equally detached from that failed policy’s awful reality when he proclaims that “the situation in Iraq is a lot better” than a year ago.

Connecticut’s voters are not obliged to prove their “moderation” by ratifying his bad judgment.

Yet the war issue alone probably would not have threatened him, as anyone who listened carefully to his critics might learn. After 18 years in the Senate, his fervent insistence that he is a lifelong devotee of “progressive causes” and his endorsement by major liberal organizations only seem to mask his accommodation with Washington’s conservative status quo.

Lieberman dutifully recites his opposition to “tax cuts for the rich” and “privatizing Social Security,” and his support of “universal health insurance” and “affordable healthcare.” When he utters those phrases, unfortunately, they ring hollow to many rank-and-file Democrats.

Actually, the syndrome afflicting him is found among entrenched veterans of both parties, especially those who appear more concerned with connections and contributions than values or ideals.

Sen. Lieberman has long been known to cultivate the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, which provide jobs in his home state and contributions to his campaign fund. But he has literally been sleeping with one of their Washington representatives ever since his wife, Hadassah, joined Hill & Knowlton last year. The legendary lobbying and PR firm hired her as a “senior counselor” in its “health and pharmaceuticals practice.”

This news marked Hadassah Lieberman’s return to consulting after more than a decade of retirement. “I have had a life-long commitment to helping people gain better health care,” she said in the press release announcing her new job. “I am excited about the opportunity to work with the talented team at Hill & Knowlton to counsel a terrific stable of clients toward that same goal.”

It would be uplifting to imagine that Hill & Knowlton — after spending the past decade as a defendant in tobacco class-action lawsuits because of its role in propaganda disputing the deadly effects of smoking — is now devoted to improving everybody’s health. More likely, the firm remains devoted to improving the profits of its clientele, which has historically included Enron, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, Saudis, Kuwaitis, American International Group and Boeing.

When a senator’s wife works for one of the capital’s largest lobby shops, appearances tend to matter. In this case, something happened immediately that didn’t look very good.

Mrs. Lieberman signed up with Hill & Knowlton in March 2005. The firm’s clients included GlaxoSmithKline, the British pharmaceutical giant that manufactures flu vaccines along with many other drugs. In April 2005, Sen. Lieberman introduced a bill that would award an array of new government “incentives” to companies like GSK to produce more vaccines — notably patent extensions on other products, at a cost of billions to governments and consumers.

That legislation provoked irritated comment by his hometown newspaper, the New Haven Register. In an editorial headlined “Lieberman Crafts Drug Company Perk,” the Register noted that his bill was even more generous to the pharmaceutical industry than a similar proposal by the Senate Republican leadership. “The government can offer incentives and guarantees for needed public health measures,” said the editorial. “But it should not write a blank check, as these bills do, to the pharmaceutical industry that has such a large cost to the public with what may be an uncertain or dubious return.”

No doubt Lieberman would do the bidding of the pharmaceutical lobby whether his wife was on its payroll or not, but this kind of coincidence is best avoided by a man who lectures the world about morality and ethics.

The senator has demanded that Ned Lamont, his challenger in next month’s Democratic primary, release his income tax returns, which must mean that he plans to do likewise. His latest financial disclosure lists Mrs. Lieberman’s compensation from Hill & Knowlton only as “more than $1000.” Presumably his tax returns will show how much more — and measure his distance from the people he represents.

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