Talking to reporters in his driveway on a hot day in August 2000, Connecticut U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman beamed — he had just been chosen as the Democratic vice presidential candidate to Al Gore.
"Miracles happen," the proud son of a Stamford liquor store owner told the nation.
John McCain. It was a very public 180-degree change of heart — a change unseen in recent American politics.
To the astonishment of Democrats, he was a showcased speaker at the 2008 Republican National Convention.
Despite a 40-year career of remarkable achievements, the transformation that marked the eight years between those elections will largely define Lieberman's legacy. He leaves office this week, a proud independent senator who began public life as a 1960s antiwar activist and took a hard right turn after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"After 9/11, Joe changed," Lieberman's close friend, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said during a recent interview in his Senate office.
"Joe understood that the threats we faced were different. We had to get ahead of this. We let our guard down before 9/11. We can never do that again,'' Graham said. "He was sort of a Winston Churchill figure who understood that after 9/11 there was no appeasing these guys. You had to fight them. It's not just about killing terrorists. It's about a robust foreign policy, staying ahead of the threat. He has a view of radical Islam very consistent with Winston Churchill's view of Hitler: You're never going to be able to deal with this guy. You've got to fight him.''
The liberal Democrat became a strong supporter of homeland security and the Iraq war under President George W. Bush, a transformation forever sealed when Bush embraced Lieberman on national TV after his State of the Union Address in 2005.
"In the long term, probably the biggest contribution I've been able to make to the country and my state,'' Lieberman said, was "all of the post 9/11 reform and reorganization of our government to deal with this unconventional challenge to our security, represented by Islamist terrorism — the Department of Homeland Security, which I co-sponsored; the 9/11 Commission, which McCain and I introduced and created; and then all of the 9/11 legislation, which reformed and reorganized the intelligence community in the most significant reform since the beginning of the Cold War in the late 1940s, that created the director of national intelligence and national counter-terrorism.''
Lieberman, 70, explains his unusual career path by saying that "the unimaginable happened in 2000" to launch an unpredictable series of events.
"Trust me, it was beyond unimaginable that I would be considered as a Republican vice presidential candidate and perhaps have the opportunity to take a unique place in history to have run for vice president on two different party tickets — and to have lost twice,'' Lieberman said. "God saved me from that — or the Republican delegates saved me from that.''
Lieberman's evolution over the years brought him a series of new friends and supporters, including McCain, Bush, and Fox News commentator Sean Hannity. It also brought him a small army of political enemies who coalesced around a previously unknown anti-war candidate named Ned Lamont to defeat Lieberman in the 2006 U.S. Senate primary.
But Lieberman says he was vindicated with his greatest political victory in November 2006, made possible by a coalition largely made up of Republicans and independents. That proved to be his final campaign in a career that is now closing after 40 years in public service, including 24 years in the U.S. Senate.
In Connecticut, many liberal Democrats increasingly soured on Lieberman's hawkish stances on defense and his support of Republican views. He was at his peak when he made history as the first Jewish American on a major party ticket, but his later views on the war in Iraq prompted many Democrats to deride him as a controversial and divisive figure.
Lieberman supporters believe that it was the Democratic Party — more than Lieberman — that changed through the years, as evidenced by the party's blistering opposition to the Iraq war.
Lieberman himself attributed the change to "a very unusual series of events in which I had different opportunities'' involving "different times and different people and different relationships that I had,'' including his close friendship with McCain.
The two senators are like brothers in a bond forged by more than 50 foreign trips together to hot spots such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. A McCain victory in 2008 also would have changed Lieberman's life once again in the same way as the vice presidential decision by Gore.
"I guarantee you if I was elected president, he would have been Secretary of State,'' McCain said of Lieberman in a recent interview in his spacious Washington office. "I'll bet you if a president nominated him to be the Secretary of State, the vote would be 100 to 0.''
At the other end of the spectrum, hard-core liberals and some true-blue Democrats regret voting for Lieberman in his earlier days and say they would never do so again.