Not Being There; The twilight of Ned Lamont.

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APRIL 2, 2007

Not Being There; The twilight of Ned Lamont.

Cambridge, Massachusetts

The fussy restaurant in Harvard Square--with its raspberry walls andsculptural silverware--seemed an unlikely place for a seriouspolitical discussion, but Ned Lamont had chosen it nonetheless.Sitting at a table for two on a recent afternoon, he ordered aniced tea and a steak salad, medium rare; then, the man who became ahero to antiwar liberals everywhere by challenging Joe Lieberman inlast year's Connecticut Senate race revealed the candidate he wasbacking in next year's presidential election: Chris Dodd. "I thinkhe's a good man--a man of integrity--and he's well-regarded inWashington on both sides of the aisle," Lamont elaborated in thesort of practiced, formal terms endemic to political endorsements."So I'm happy to support him."

Actually, this wasn't the first time Lamont had declared his supportfor Dodd. A few weeks earlier, he had made a similar announcement.But, other than a brief mention on The Nation's blog, no one seemedto notice; even the Dodd campaign--which could use all the help itcan get--failed to tout Lamont's endorsement in a press release oron its website. So, while he waited for his meal, Lamont patientlytried out the endorsement yet again, hoping, no doubt, for a moredramatic effect.

It has been quite a comedown for Lamont. Last August, after hescored an upset victory over Lieberman in the Democratic primary,presidential wannabes (including not just Dodd but first-tiercandidates like Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama)were doing everything they could to identify themselves withLamont--campaigning for him, giving him money, loaning him staff.Now, seven months later, after losing to Lieberman in the generalelection and then dropping off the political radar as suddenly as hehad first appeared on it, Lamont is the one trying--and notnecessarily succeeding--to identify himself with one of thepresidential candidates, and a second-tier one at that.

Lamont is currently biding his time as a fellow at the Institute ofPolitics at Harvard's Kennedy School, which functions as a sort ofhalfway house for recently defeated politicians trying to reenterdecent society. Lamont, who made a fortune installing telecomsystems on college campuses and was a political novice beforechallenging Lieberman, theoretically isn't in as dire need of rehabas some of his fellow fellows--such as Nancy Johnson, who spent 24years as a Connecticut representative before being swept out ofoffice last November. "A lot of these politicians have done ittheir whole life, so the thought of losing--there's nothing left;it's the abyss," Lamont said in between bites of his salad. "And,for me, this whole campaign was a little bit of an out-of-bodyexperience." Indeed, the day after losing to Lieberman, Lamontreturned to his company's office. But he soon realized thatsomething was missing. "After spending a year trying to end thewar," he conceded, "it's a little tough to go back to trying tosell telecommunications to Haverford."

And so Lamont has tried to keep a hand in the political game. He haswritten an op-ed piece on Iraq for the Hartford Courant and an openletter to Lieberman for The Huffington Post. He's in talks with auniversity in Connecticut about setting up a policy institute andmay join a think tank in Washington. He has made a few speeches toliberal groups around the country. "I'm doing anything anybody asksme to do," Lamont said. But the requests aren't exactly pouring in.His political schedule, he said, is "light."

Most of Lamont's time these days is spent on the class he teachesonce a week at the Institute of Politics. Called "Crashing theGate," it's an in-depth study of the 2006 Connecticut Senatecampaign. Which means that, once a week, Lamont basically reliveshis unsuccessful effort to unseat Lieberman-- discussing the insand outs of the race and hosting guest lectures by the campaign'smajor players, including some of the people who helped Liebermanbeat him. (A particularly interesting class should be the mid-Aprilsession when Lieberman apparatchik Dan Gerstein--who branded Lamont"Negative Ned"-- pays a visit.) Lamont professes himselfcomfortable with the way things turned out last year and isreluctant to engage in much second-guessing. "The race was therace; now, you move forward," he said. But, sometimes, it's hard--especially when your academic specialty is that very election.Lamont said he couldn't help but notice, for instance, the recentpictures of Al Sharpton "hand-in-hand with Bill Clinton down therein Selma"--and think about the grief he took for having Sharptonappear onstage with him the night of his Democratic primaryvictory.

He also remains puzzled by the fact that, even though he is aGreenwich millionaire and the sort of guy who considers his meetingwith Larry Summers one of the highlights of his Harvard sojourn("Some people around here felt insulted when he challenged them. Iloved it!"), he failed to appeal to moderate voters in the generalelection. "I was looking forward to going to the Chamber ofCommerce, because I thought I'd do pretty well in that group," herecalled. "And I tried to go talk to them, and they wouldn't see me.... Within two weeks of winning the primary, I was Trotsky'sgreat-nephew."

And he hasn't forgotten about how so many of the prominent Democratswho pledged their support after he won the primary started slinkingaway from him as it became increasingly clear he was going to losethe general election. He ruefully recalled going to a DemocraticSenatorial Campaign Committee event in New York: "All the otherDemocratic candidates stood up and spoke, and then they shared thetake from the fund-raiser. I was invited to wave from theaudience." Indeed, Lamont's decision to endorse Dodd seems motivatedin large part by the fact that the Connecticut senator was one ofthe few prominent Democrats who stuck by him. "I just like guys whoare up-front with me," he said.

After lunch, Lamont went back to his office at the KennedySchool--his home while he is at Harvard is a dorm at the BusinessSchool--to prepare for his class. That week's session would bedevoted to Iraq and featured guest lectures by an Iraq war vet whocampaigned on behalf of Lamont and Connecticut RepublicanRepresentative Chris Shays, whose narrow win last November was, inpart, attributable to his close relationship with Lieberman. For anhour and a half, Lamont led a group of about three dozenstudents--mostly undergrads, plus a few graduate students and localresidents--through a discussion of Iraq policy and how the warmight affect a Senate campaign. When it was over, a smattering ofstudents huddled around their teacher and made small talk. ButLamont didn't have much time to linger. Looking at his watch, hestarted edging toward the door. In a little less than a half-hour,he had a pressing engagement. The Harvard Entrepreneurs Club hadinvited him to give a speech at its meeting.

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