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Snarl in Peace, Arlen Specter

It was always hard to like Arlen Specter because he was so unlikable. “Snarlin' Arlin,” they called him behind his back in the U.S. Senate, though that wasn't quite on the mark.

Specter, who died Sunday of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 82, was cool, imperious and difficult in a way that brilliant men can be. He also had a drive to prove himself in the broader world, as only a Jewish kid from Wichita, Kansas can. In his 2000 autobiography Passion for Truth, Specter’s need to be recognized oozes out from nearly every page. It gave him an edge. To use a Yiddish word, he had shpilkes.

I covered Specter during most of his long political career in Pennsylvania—right to the bitter end, when he lost his seat in 2010, after his desire to retain power overcame his native intelligence. He switched from Republican to Democrat, a move that looked as if it was done solely as an act of self preservation—which it was.

As he exited the Republican caucus, he criticized his party's drift to the right, saying: “I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate—not prepared to have that record decided by that jury.”

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As a result, he was despised by Republicans and spurned by Democrats. He was out for good after spending 50 years either running for or holding public office. He was also politically homeless. That’s the sort of status that tends to turn pols into heroes in the eyes of the political commentariat. But, as with all things Arlen, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

In fact, even in an appreciation, it is hard to apply a halo to Specter, unless you engage in a series of “Yes, but” statements. 

Attorneys who worked for him when he was Philadelphia District Attorney in the 1960s said he treated them as if he was the senior partner in a law firm and they were mere minions. One later said he was reminded of Specter when he watched John Houseman do his turn as Professor Charles Kingfield in the Paper Chase. But, they also said politics never entered into his decisions when it came to prosecutions—and this was in a deeply political city.  

In 1991, he enraged women with his rough treatment of Anita Hill, during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Specter professed to be baffled by the criticism, saying he asked fair but pointed questions—oblivious to the fact that he sounded like a D.A. prosecuting a criminal. But it was Specter who derailed the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987, correctly sensing he had a dangerous mind. Bork would still be on the court today were it not for Specter, a thought that chills. 

When Specter switched parties in 2009 and joined the Democratic caucus in the Senate, it was a move calculated to save his career. But, he did cast the deciding vote in favor of Obamacare.

For reporters, watching Specter handle political issues in his home state was like a watching a skier navigate a slalom course. He would move right then left and back again. Just enough to keep Republican conservatives merely grumbling. Just enough to keep moderates and independents relatively pleased.

In Pennsylvania, he was part of a centrist line of Republican politicians that included, in the U.S. Senate alone, Hugh Scott, Richard Schweiker and John Heinz. These were men who knew their voters, knew their state and acted accordingly. They were centrists by necessity, but also by disposition. Though he did it with an edge, Specter was the same. We could use more politicians like him.

Tom Ferrick is senior editor of Metropolis, a news web site in Philadelphia.