Arlen Specter: An Appreciation

Hal Gullan, author of Toomey’s Triumph published this Op-Ed piece in the October 17, 2012 issue of The Philadelphia Inquirer  to acknowledge the passing of Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter.

I was thinking of Arlen Specter while watching this year’s first presidential debate, reflecting on how rarely these gaffe-avoidance exercises actually change anyone’s preconceptions. The most one-sided political debate I’ve ever seen was during Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in 2010. Specter, the longtime incumbent, simply demolished his challenger, that seasoned old salt Joe Sestak.

Specter was by turns the folksy Arlen, recalling his reverence during his modest Kansas upbringing for Franklin D. Roosevelt, the inspiration for his public life – well, that and symbolically getting his father the bonus promised for his service in the First World War – and the “snarlin’ Arlen” who would reach for the jugular of any opponent, whatever his or her age or gender. Specter all but challenged his younger opponent (as most were at that point) to “take it outside.” One could appreciate that debating was his sole extracurricular emphasis at Penn.

Oddly, it was Sestak’s standing in the polls that rose almost immediately thereafter. Apparently, no one had actually watched the debate or cared about it.

Like many athletes, politicians often stay just one season or one term too long. For that matter, Specter was always better suited to general elections than to primaries. After all, he was a birthright Democrat turned Republican turned Democrat again – some 44 years later.

Privilege to serve

Although Specter was not devoid of conviction, pragmatic ambition often took precedence. He wanted to run for Philadelphia district attorney, and only the Republican nomination was available. He wanted to win yet a sixth term in the Senate, and only the Democratic nomination was viable. Specter is likely the only American politician who was supported in one election by George W. Bush and in the next by Barack Obama. Yet at the end of the electoral road, he could quietly affirm to his constituents, through apparent tears, “It has been a privilege to serve you.”

Thomas E. Dewey once observed that no one should seek public office who could not earn more elsewhere. I first met Specter when, as the graduate of a prestigious law school, he went to work for the old-line Philadelphia firm then called Barnes, Dechert, Price, Myers & Rhoads. He was likely its first Jewish associate, arriving around the time of its first female associate. Arlen was amiable enough, but he soon left to join the District Attorney’s Office: The long road to respectable liquidity wasn’t for him.

Reasoning that, after all, both major parties still had big tents, he accepted Billy Meehan’s invitation to run for D.A. as a Republican. He won handily, and by all accounts ran a highly effective, vigorous, and nonpartisan office. Public service would be his vocation from then on.

He was reportedly difficult to work for, but no less demanding of himself. Over the years, few may have viewed him as particularly lovable, but no one doubted his intelligence, thoroughness, grasp of the law, or sheer tenacity.

Tirelessly on the job

To me, Specter’s finest moment was one of the few races he lost. Far more people remember his still-controversial single-bullet theory or his extraordinary contradictions as the longest-serving senator in our state’s history, having savaged Robert Bork and Anita Hill with equal ferocity. But my bittersweet memory is of his campaign for Philadelphia mayor in 1967, the only one I ever volunteered for.

Although running as a Republican, Specter assembled a remarkable team of reformers from both parties and neither. Unfortunately, his opponent, the amiable but uninspiring James H.J. Tate (popularly called “Hesitate” for his inactivity), simply lucked out. His timely promotion of parochial schools and vocal support for Israel in its moment of greatest peril supplemented his unqualified guarantee, in a law-and-order climate, that he would retain the popular police commissioner, Frank Rizzo.

Specter just said he would keep everyone who was doing a good job, and he and his entire slate lost by a whisker. They would have changed the future of Philadelphia.

How, in the end, to define Arlen Specter? The best word, like the life itself, is inexplicable. Over his unprecedented Senate tenure, he stuck laudably and consistently with some causes, such as civil and women’s rights. In other areas, his views were remarkably variable, at no time more than after he returned to the Democratic Party in 2009. He may have been “moderate” in many of his positions, but he was not in his ambition.

Of course, in this he was hardly alone. In 1932, Roosevelt campaigned for a balanced budget.

In personal terms, how can anyone fail to admire Specter’s courage? After so much illness, he stayed tirelessly on the job and prided himself on visiting every one of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties every year – and still played squash regularly. I can testify from experience that there is nothing more therapeutic than bad tennis, but there is no such thing as bad squash. If you’re not fast enough, you will simply miss the ball.

I will miss Arlen Specter in our public life. We will not see his like again.

Harold I. Gullan is a Philadelphia historian and the author of Toomey’s Triumph as well as the forthcoming Tough Cop: Mike Chitwood vs. the “Scumbags.”

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