An Oral History of Arlen Specter

After four decades in public life, Arlen Specter is still as brash, complicated and unpredictable as ever. Here, an oral history of the career of one of the country’s most famous (and infamous) senators

Raised in Russell, Kansas — the prairie outpost that also gave the world Bob Dole — and schooled at Penn and Yale, Arlen Specter first made his name as a young attorney taking on the Teamsters and working on the Warren Commission. In the years since — as district attorney, defense attorney, perpetual candidate, senator — Specter took his place in the city’s political pantheon, alongside such icons as Rizzo, Tate and Dilworth.

For the past quarter-century, he’s also been a Zelig-like national figure. From his role in sinking Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination to his cross-examination of Anita Hill, from stem-cell research to the impeachment of Bill Clinton, Specter’s greatest talent may be his unique ability to put himself — somehow, some way — in the center of the nation’s most important debates.

It’s not just Specter’s ubiquity, though, that has led us to think of him as an institution. It’s also the niche he’s carved out for himself as one of the few true wild cards of Washington politics. He is reviled by those on both the right and the left. Charming and churlish, brilliant and pedantic, he can be fiercely independent, entertainingly eccentric, and simply maddening. In September, Specter voted along with his party to approve a bill governing the interrogation and trials of terror suspects, just hours after he had declared the bill blatantly unconstitutional.

The move was pure Specter. And it made us wonder: What it is that makes Specter so, well, Specterian? To figure that out, we rounded up stories and comments from the Senator’s friends, colleagues, foes and foils, to get their take on the career of one of the city’s most interesting and inscrutable political figures.

Prologue: The Importance of Being Arlen

With his reelection in 2004, Specter became the longest-serving senator in Pennsylvania history. He is also, arguably, at the height of his power. Much of that comes from his position as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, but it also is drawn from the pivotal role he plays in the Senate. A moderate Republican in an often bitterly divided Congress, Specter has been a crucial voice and vote on almost every important issue.

Craig Snyder, lobbyist, former chief of staff: I think he’s the most powerful Pennsylvanian who has ever lived. We had President Buchanan, but that was a disaster. Senator Specter used to repeat a lot to us something that Earl Warren said to him at the Warren Commission, which was that our client is the Constitution. I really believe he’s tried to live by that. I think he lives up to the founding fathers’ idea of what a senator is supposed to be.

Mark Klugheit, attorney, former Specter staffer: The high point of his career may well be what he is doing right now, as the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and trying to be an effective voice on the war on terror while having respect for the Constitution and due process of law.

Jack Cafferty, CNN anchor, The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, May 11, 2006: We better all hope nothing happens to Arlen Specter, the Republican head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, because he might be all that is standing between us and a full-blown dictatorship in this country.

Michael Smerconish, attorney, radio show host: In the very first days of his chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, I traveled to Washington and watched him chair the hearings for both [John] Roberts and [Samuel] Alito. I’ve known him for many years, and I sat there and marveled at his position of such prominence. And I was thinking, this gets taken for granted at home.

Jack Cafferty, The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, June 6, 2006: What an idiot I am. I actually thought at the time Senator Specter was going to exercise his responsibility to provide some Congressional oversight of the executive branch, you know, see if the White House is playing by the rules. Silly me. In the end, Senator Specter has turned out to be yet another gutless Republican worm cowering in the face of pressure from the administration and fellow Republicans. There are not going to be any hearings [on secret wiretapping]. Americans won’t find out if their privacy is being illegally invaded. … It’s a disgrace.

Rick Santorum, junior senator from Pennsylvania: He’s not somebody who will win Miss Popularity or Miss Congeniality, but at the same time, he will win the prize for earnestness and hard work and determination. There’s part of Arlen who likes to be out there and on the edge sometimes, willing to bat heads.

I. The Single Bullet Conclusion?

After graduating from Yale Law School in 1956 and joining the Philadelphia firm of Barnes, Dechert, Price, Myers and Rhoads, Specter became active in politics — as a Democrat. Then, in 1959, at the age of 29, he left Dechert to join the district attorney’s office, where he later won a high-profile case against a powerful local union, Teamsters 107. His success brought him to the attention of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. In 1964, after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Specter was asked to join the commission investigating the shooting.

Arlen Specter, from his book Passion for Truth: On New Year’s Eve in 1963, I was at my desk in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, trying to concoct an excuse for arriving home late. … At about 5:30 p.m., the telephone rang. It was my law school classmate Howard Willens, Robert Kennedy’s deputy at the Department of Justice. Howard asked if I was interested in joining the staff of a commission, to be chaired by Chief Justice Earl Warren, that would investigate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Craig Snyder: I don’t think the man has ever been in a public forum — even if the stated topic was hydroelectric dams — where he wasn’t asked, “Aren’t you the guy who came up with the Magic Bullet Theory?”

William T. Coleman Jr., former Secretary of Transportation, member of the Warren Commission: Arlen was actually appointed as a junior counsel, but it turned out that he was involved in finding out just who Oswald was, and whether Oswald had done it. And because the bullet hit two different people, it was hard to say that there wasn’t a second guy involved. He was the one to demonstrate to the Chief Justice that there was only one bullet; it went through both of them.

Michael Smerconish: He calls it the Single Bullet Conclusion. Not Theory. Conclusion.

Arlen Specter, from his book: It all boiled down to one key fact: When the bullet exited the president’s neck, the limousine was in such a position that the bullet had to strike the car’s interior or someone in it. Our exhaustive examination of the limousine had shown that no bullet had struck the car’s interior. Then there was Connally, sitting right in the line of fire, directly in front of Kennedy. … Could the president’s neck wound and all of the governor’s wounds have been caused by a single bullet? … That’s where the facts led.

Edward Jay Epstein, author of Inquest, about the Warren Commission, from his diary: I had no doubts of his competency. He had operated on the Warren Commission under enormous time pressure. He had realized, even though others had not, that if Connally had been hit by a third bullet, as he claimed and the FBI also concluded, there would not have been enough time for Oswald to have fired three bullets according to the Zapruder film. His Single Bullet Theory provided a Deus Ex Machina.

Mark Klugheit: People saw that silly Oliver Stone movie and thought that what Kevin Costner said was what the evidence said, which it isn’t. But that certainly put it in people’s minds.

II. The D.A. Years: “It Was Hard to Like Arlen”

After his work on the Warren Commission, Specter returned to Philadelphia to spearhead a state investigation of the magistrate system. In 1965, in the midst of the inquiry, he announced he was running for district attorney against incumbent James Crumlish. He won, and quickly gained a reputation for being exceedingly bright and exceedingly difficult to work for. He revolutionized the office by hiring smart young assistant D.A.’s regardless of their political affiliation.

Lynne Abraham, current Philadelphia District Attorney: I first met Arlen when he interviewed me to be an assistant D.A. I didn’t know him from a can of paint. In the previous D.A. administration — the Crumlish–Fitzpatrick team — I’d tried to get in. But in those days, the first question put to you was, “Who’s your ward leader?” I had no idea who my ward leader was. I was working at HUD and despised my job. I took a night course at Temple Law taught by Dick Sprague, who was Arlen’s number two. He asked me, “Who are you? Why are you not in the D.A.’s office?” I told him I didn’t know my ward leader. He said, “That’s not the way it is under Arlen.” When Arlen interviewed me, I told him I’d take a job on one condition: that they didn’t stick me in juvenile court with all the other girl lawyers. He said [Abraham goes into an impression of Specter], “Just a minute, young lady.” He was dumbstruck. No one talked to Arlen Specter that way. But he must have figured that if I spoke to him like that, I wouldn’t be a pushover in the courtroom, and true to his word, I started as an ADA going toe-to-toe with the men.

Ed Rendell, Governor: As his employee, it was hard to like Arlen. You didn’t dislike him, but he never showed you his softer side. But you respected him. And you feared him. I once had an 8 a.m. meeting scheduled in Arlen’s office with six other ADAs, and I got there eight minutes late. He ripped me a new rear end, in front of everybody. I don’t like thinking about it even now. “If this were a private law firm, you just wasted one-sixth of an hour of your bottom line,” he said. That was how Arlen led: It was that feeling of, it’s us vs. the world. He could be frightening, but also inspiring. He had a knack for making his ADAs feel like we were the last guardians at the gates of Hell vs. the forces of evil.

Arthur Makadon, chairman, Ballard Spahr: As a boss, he was very, very demanding and very, very good. Suffice to say, he was a serious taskmaster. Everyone describes Arlen as “tough.” I would not. I would describe him as smarter than the people with whom he deals.

Lynne Abraham: He’d conduct those daily staff meetings in courtroom 653 in City Hall. We’d all sit in the jury box, and you’d have to stand up and tell how your day went. He’d give you an instantaneous critique. Let’s say you had 25 cases and 10 weren’t reached; he’d say, “What do you mean 10 weren’t reached?” And I’d say, Judge So-and-So didn’t get to them. He’d say, “I don’t care about Judge So-and-So. You’re in charge of your courtroom.” Arlen never wanted to hear excuses.

Ed Rendell: Did anyone tell you about the five o’clock staff meetings? We dreaded them. You’d have to give an update on your cases, and if it was a favorable report, there would be no praise. He’d just say, “Okay.” If there were too many continuances, or if you lost a case, he’d rip you. He’d call you on everything you did. You were petrified.

Arthur Makadon: I was with him throughout his second term in office, and those were the most informative professional years of my life. I learned more in those four years than in the rest of the years I practiced the law.

Arlen Specter, from his book: At the time, I knew those staff meetings were tough, but I thought they were necessary. … My approach was to make my assistants prefer to take a strong stand to get cases tried and appropriate sentences imposed with recalcitrant judges than to face me in the staff meetings with weak excuses for not getting the job done. … In retrospect, I should have done it differently.

Ed Rendell: When I became D.A., I didn’t rule by fear like Arlen, but I would take pages out of his book at times. At around 7:30, I used to walk around like he would and see who was staying and working late and thank them — that tended to keep people around on the job later.

Elliott Curson, political consultant who did commercials for several Specter campaigns: The surprising thing is that there is a nice, warm, friendly side to him. It doesn’t come out very often, but it is there.

Lynne Abraham: Nobody should underestimate the role [wife] Joan plays for Arlen. She’s a leavening agent. She’s softer, kinder, sweeter. He’s always called her “Blondie.”

Ed Rendell: He has a dry sense of humor. I’ll have to think of some examples of his sense of humor, but he can be funny.

Lynne Abraham: He seems like an automaton — until he’s had a couple of martinis. With a couple of drinks in him, he’s the funniest guy in the room. I can’t remember any specific instances of his sense of humor — but he has one.

Michael Smerconish: He’s got a great, dry sense of humor. One-liners. I can’t think of any specific examples, but he’s funny.

III. A Loss, a Win: Tougher, Younger …

In 1967, after little more than a year on the job as D.A., Specter announced his run for mayor against incumbent James Tate. He narrowly lost the election, but came back two years later to win reelection as D.A., campaigning with former LaSalle basketball star Tom Gola, who was running for City Controller, using one of the most famous slogans in local political history.

Elliott Curson, consultant on the 1969 campaign: When he ran his 1967 mayoral campaign, I was on the sidelines. He had somebody run a terrible campaign for him. It was his to lose, and he lost it. Here was this tough, honest, outspoken district attorney, and he came out with a jingle: “Philadelphia is our land/Arlen is our man/Aren’t you glad he’s now running for mayor.”

Lynne Abraham: When he ran for mayor, one of the issues that did him in was aid to parochial schools. He started talking about a “constitutional umbrella.” I said to myself, “Oh, please, Arlen, people don’t want to hear about the separation of church and state. They want to know if you’re going to help Catholic kids.” But that’s who he is: someone who is obsessed with arcane intricacies of law.

Elliott Curson: What I did was end all the radio advertising with the phrase: “They’re tougher. They’re younger. And nobody owns them.” I like the short and choppy sentences. I started with, “They’re smarter. They’re younger. And nobody runs them.” Then Steve Harmelin — a lawyer I introduced to Arlen in 1967 — came into my office, and he said, “Nobody is looking for somebody who’s smarter. They’re looking for somebody who’s tougher.” Then I changed “Nobody runs them” to “Nobody owns them.” “Runs them” was too complicated.

Ed Rendell: I’ve never been much of a drinker, but one night during that election, we were out until about two in the morning, and I think I was drinking gin. I just remember getting back to my apartment at two in the morning, running up the stairs, yelling at the top of my lungs: “They’re young! They’re tough! And nobody owns them!” I got my key in the door and made it to the bathroom just in time to get sick.

IV. From Three-Time Loser to the Senate

Specter decided to run for a third term as D.A. in 1973, despite the fact that he no longer wanted the job. With Watergate dominating the front page and Republican candidates taking a beating, Specter lost to Emmett Fitzpatrick and was ushered into the most fallow period of his political career. Over the next six years, he lost primary elections for senator and governor. Finally, in 1980, after Senator Richard Schweiker decided to retire, Specter won the Republican primary and then beat Pittsburgh mayor Pete Flaherty to become a U.S. senator.

Elliott Curson: He didn’t really want to run in 1973. He wanted to run for governor the next year, and [Republican Party boss] Billy Meehan said, “No, I got 42 judges up for reelection, you gotta run.” He ran his own campaign. It was not an energetic campaign. He was just getting it out of the way so he could get the nomination to run for governor. And he went down in defeat. That was the end of the Republican Party in Philadelphia.

Mark Klugheit: He had lost a primary for the Senate to Heinz, and he had lost a primary to Thornburgh. He was on a losing streak. People thought he ought to get the political bug out of his body and be a practicing lawyer. I don’t think Arlen ever thought that.

Michael Smerconish: I met Specter when I crashed a $500-per-person fund-raiser for him at the Bellevue in 1980. Ronald Reagan was there, and I wanted to meet him. In my only blue sport coat and a wide knit tie, I walked in. That’s where I met Shanin [Specter, Arlen's son], and we became close friends. Later, I ran for the state legislature in my second year of law school, from Bucks County, and Senator Specter invited me to be the campaign manager for Philadelphia in his 1986 race against Bob Edgar. That was the transition from family friend to someone working on the team. In that campaign, we had an office at Broad and Spruce — where Ruth’s Chris is now. I remember a particular day, he was in Center City and was due at headquarters at some point. We had protesters arrive on our sidewalk. What they were protesting, I don’t remember, but I felt obliged to call and warn him so he could delay his return to avoid the protesters. In what I learned to be typical Specter, all that made him do was have the driver floor it to get back to the campaign headquarters, where the action was.

Mark Klugheit: I think when the 1980 election came along, the seat was pretty much an open seat; there was not a really strong Republican. His principal opponent was a guy nobody had heard of, Bud Haabestad, so I think Arlen saw an opportunity. He’s never been one to be dissuaded by what other people think. He saw an opportunity to get back in the game.

Arlen Specter, from his book: When I first came to the Senate, watching senators congregate and talk on the floor, I thought of Valhalla, the meeting place of the Norse gods. I watched with some awe prominent senators about whom I’d read for years come in to vote: Barry Goldwater, Scoop Jackson, Bob Dole, Ted Kennedy, John Tower. … This is not to say the Senate always inspires goose bumps. Senator Dale Bumpers of Arkansas and I used the Senate gym at about the same hour and had long talks in the steam room. One of the earliest bits of advice Bumpers gave me was, “Arlen, you’re going to spend the first six months wondering how you got here, and then you’re going to spend the next five and a half years wondering how the other guys got here.”

Michael Smerconish: When Shanin was at Cambridge, his father, a freshman senator at the time, came over. And his father debated at Cambridge the proposition that “The Soviet Union is, by definition, an evil empire.” And the tradition at Cambridge in debating is that audience members exit a particular door based on who they think won the debate. When the debate was over, Arlen refused to budge from the room until every person had walked out the door. He needed to know if he’d won or lost.

Ed Rendell: When I ran and lost in those two elections within the span of a year — governor in ’86 and mayor in ’87 — after you lose like that, people tend to stay away and write you off. Arlen was one of the few to call and say, “Keep your chin up, you never know what can happen down the road.” He didn’t have to do that, call a twice-defeated Democrat.

Michael Smerconish: I remember Mother’s Day, 1991. I had to go to his house in East Falls and ask for his support to be the regional director of HUD. It was a painful meeting. Bill Meehan was the Republican boss, and he didn’t want the first Bush administration appointing me. Meehan got on a train and went to the White House to campaign against me. And I had this relationship with Arlen Specter, and it put Specter in a tough position. So he’d been noncommittal, and on that day, I had to go to his house for a one-on-one meeting in the front porch room. In the end, he bucked the wishes of Meehan and let the White House know I was his choice. So here’s the one elected official to whom I most owe the job, and he’s the only elected official I can think of in the tri-state area who didn’t pick up the phone and ask for something [while I was with HUD]. The one guy who would be the most deserving of a payback is the one guy who wouldn’t ask.

V. Bork. Hill. “His Low Mark.”

In July 1987, President Ronald Reagan nominated federal appeals court judge Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court. Bork gave extensive and candid testimony about his legal philosophy and political views — views that ultimately led to his rejection by Specter and the Senate. Then, in 1991, Specter played a key role in the confirmation of another Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, when he was selected to question Anita Hill about her charges that Thomas had sexually harassed her when she worked for him. Specter’s prosecutorial zeal — at one point, he asked Hill the same question nine different ways — earned him the ire of women across the country, and almost led to his defeat the following year by Lynn Yeakel.

Mark Klugheit: Bork would have been a National Review poster boy on the Supreme Court. Because he would have been all the things [conservatives] love. A brilliant guy? No question, an intellectual giant, but also a very, very rigid, dogmatic conservative. Specter pretty much single-handedly torpedoed the Bork nomination.

Arlen Specter, on the floor of the Senate, October 1, 1987: I shall vote against Judge Bork on confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court because I believe there is substantial doubt as to how he would apply fundamental principles of constitutional law. This is a difficult vote, since I will be opposing my president, my party, and a man of powerful intellect whom I respect and like. I have spent hours discussing my concerns with Judge Bork both publicly at the hearings and privately in my office. … At the end, politics and personalities must give way, for me, to my own judgment on the history and the future of the Constitution.

Robert Bork, from his book The Tempting of America: I spent almost seven hours all told with Senator Specter, at the hearings and in his offices, discussing constitutional law, all of it at his request. To the end, he could not comprehend what I was saying about the First Amendment, the Equal Protection clause, the need to construe the Constitution in the light of the original understanding, or the dangers of letting judges decide cases with no more authority or guidance than a phrase not in the Constitution, such as “fairness” or “the needs of the nation.”

Anita Hill, from her book Speaking Truth to Power: Specter began by assuring me that he was simply trying “to find out what happened.” Nevertheless, in short order, any hope that Senator Specter would transcend the political was dashed. He began his questioning with an unmistakably prosecutorial tone. He used a familiar cross-examination tactic — a tactic common in sexual harassment cases. He ridiculed my reaction to Thomas’s behavior, suggesting that I was being oversensitive, even to the point of misrepresenting my testimony. … The tension between Senator Specter and me was measurable. The process seemed to break down completely. Senator Specter would repeat the same questions until he got the answer he wanted. … The more he pursued it, the more inclined I was to resist. Digging in was, perhaps, for me one way of hanging on to some amount of my dignity. By now I knew that his questions were both insincere and ill-informed. Though I tried to answer him, I was equally determined that the Senator not put words in my mouth. With every question he asked, it became clearer that despite any declaration to the contrary, he viewed me as an adversary. Rather than seeking to elicit information, his questioning sought to elicit a conclusion that he had reached before the hearing began.

Lynne Abraham: When he interrogated Anita Hill, that was the first time I ever really wanted to just smack him. I was so horribly disappointed in him. It was so unnecessary to be so prosecutorial. It was his low mark in the U.S. Senate. The worse he got, the better she looked. And I’d tell him that.

Ralph Neas, former president of People for the American Way, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: The senator I saw during Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas — I quite frankly didn’t recognize. It was like totally a different person.

Mark Klugheit: I’ve certainly been in a room with him where he examined witnesses, and I don’t think he examined Anita Hill any differently. I think he was surprised that his questioning got the reaction it did. It made him more sensitive to the fact that it’s not just what you say but how you say it, that sometimes treading softly may be better.

Arlen Specter, in the Washington Post: I walked out of the Senate chamber yesterday and a woman said, “God should strike you dead.” I got an obscene gesture from the staffer of a prominent woman politician. I really felt sort of betrayed. I’ve been with them 999 times out of a thousand. I’m doing a job fairly and properly, and they’re responding like this. It’s just not basic civility. I did not understand I was coming across that way. I was very careful to be very polite and very professional. But I was very concerned about a lot of her testimony.

Arthur Makadon: Anita Hill was a very uncharacteristic blemish in Arlen’s career. My own guess is he was too concerned with his upcoming primary fight, and I don’t think his demeanor during those hearings represented his bedrock beliefs.

Paul Weyrich, chairman of the conservative Free Congress Foundation, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: He saved Clarence Thomas. If it had not been for him, Thomas would have been defeated.

Arlen Specter, in his book: In October 1997, in the Oklahoma City airport, Joan’s luggage cart became entangled with another woman’s purse strap as we were preparing to board a flight to Houston. Untangling the bags, I looked up and saw Anita Hill. Quite surprised, I said, “Hello, Professor Hill.” Hill looked at me and said, “Senator, Senator,” either not remembering my name, which I doubt, or not wanting to utter it.

Anita Hill, in the Washington Post in 1997: It was sort of chitchat. It was bizarre. At first I was shocked, and I was thinking, “Am I mistaken, or aren’t you the person who accused me of flat-out perjury?”

Neil Oxman, Lynn Yeakel campaign consultant: He ran a brilliant campaign against Lynn. She had said her father, who had been in Congress, was her political hero. Turns out he had voted against civil rights legislation, and Arlen beat her up about that in African-American divisions. And her church had some program about the Palestinians — even though it had nothing to do with Lynn, he used that against her with Jews. He marginalized her among those two groups to the point that she ran significantly behind Clinton among them. You’ve got to admire Arlen’s shamelessness. He will do or say anything to win.

Arthur Makadon: Yeakel never had a chance. Arlen said smarter things, and he made her say stupid things. And make no mistake — that was all Arlen. There was no outside adviser telling him what to do.

VI. President, Um, Specter

In March 1995, Specter announced he was running for the Republican nomination for president. The campaign would turn out to be one of the more quixotic endeavors in his career. He spent much of his time criticizing figures such as Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan, and saying the party had become beholden to religious conservatives — fully aware that the most reliable block of voters in the Republican primaries was religious conservatives.

Mark Klugheit: I remember it was an absolutely wonderful morning in Washington when Arlen actually made his announcement that he was running for president. Arlen had a terrific slogan — he and I still argue over who wrote it. It was something like, “The Republican Party can’t afford a candidate who is so captive of the intolerant right that we will end up reelecting a Democratic president of the incompetent left.” He thinks he wrote it, and I think I wrote it.

Howard Stern, radio host, on his program in 1995, to Specter: The number one reason I like you for president is that when I said your wife looked like Pamela Anderson, you didn’t know who that was. I like that.

Craig Snyder: Specter was the first serious, high-ranking official who was Jewish to run for president in either party. It was striking to me how much hate mail we got. We got a lot of anti-Semitic mail. You know that stuff is out there, obviously, but when you see it concentrated and put forward that way, that’s a wake-up call.

Mark Klugheit: Long shot as it was, there was a time when we actually thought it might happen. We started at probably one percent in the polls, and we always thought that if we could maneuver it in such a way that Arlen was the only moderate against a field of right-wing Republicans, which seemed possible, and we could get to California — a winner-take-all state at that point — and it was us vs. three or four conservatives, we might just have a shot. And it seemed to be working. Pete Wilson dropped out. Bill Weld decided not to get in the game. Then Colin Powell made some rumblings about getting in, and the air got sucked out of our balloon.

Elliott Curson: It was like going to an Orthodox synagogue and saying, “I’ve got pork for sale.” It was the wrong message for the wrong group of people.

Craig Snyder: The message of his campaign was that the Republican Party had to be a big tent — if the party was captured by the right wing, it wasn’t going to be competitive in national elections. I think he was proven exactly right. I think Dole lost in 1996 because it was believed the party had been controlled and captured by the hard right. And I think Bush went on to win in 2000 because Karl Rove created the concept of “compassionate conservative.”

VII. Arlen saves America?

Even after nearly two decades in the Senate, Specter hadn’t lost any of his ability to confound — or court controversy. In 1998, he voted “not proven” rather than “not guilty” in the impeachment trial of President Clinton, citing Scottish law as a precedent. And by the time George W. Bush was campaigning for a second term, Specter’s unpredictability and centrist views had made him an object of derision among many conservatives. The National Review labeled him the “worst Republican senator,” and numerous prominent conservatives openly backed Specter’s Republican challenger, Pat Toomey, in the 2004 primary. After narrowly beating Toomey and prevailing in the general election, Specter realized a lifelong ambition, becoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in which role he presided over the confirmation hearings of both Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. Now 76, and having survived a bout with Hodgkin’s disease, a brain tumor and heart bypass surgery, Specter shows no signs of slowing down or changing. Indeed, he is in the midst of one of the most controversial periods of his public life; earlier this year, he infuriated many in his own party by consistently criticizing the Bush administration over warrant-less wiretapping by the National Security Agency and over the treatment of detainees. Specter then managed to infuriate everyone else by seeming to backtrack on the issues and compromising with the administration — a pattern that was exemplified by his decision to vote for the recent detainee bill after he announced that part of it was blatantly unconstitutional. And yet, those hoping Specter’s days in the Senate are numbered — he’ll be 80 at the end of his current term — might want to hold their celebration; many who know him don’t count out the possibility of a sixth term.

Michelle Malkin, conservative columnist, in her blog: I don’t care which party he belongs to. The man’s unbridled glee at achieving his lifelong dream to fondle the gavel is just … icky.

Ed Rendell: People know Arlen is a tough guy, but they have no idea how tough. In the midst of getting chemotherapy, he was playing squash three times a week.

Arlen Specter, in a letter to Vice President Dick Cheney: When there were public disclosures about the telephone companies turning over millions of customer records involving allegedly billions of telephone calls, the Judiciary Committee scheduled a hearing of the chief executive officers of the four telephone companies involved. … I was surprised, to say the least, that you sought to influence, really determine, the action of the Committee without calling me first, or at least calling me at some point. This was especially perplexing since we both attended the Republican Senators caucus lunch yesterday and I walked directly in front of you on at least two occasions enroute [sic] from the buffet to my table.

Arlen Specter to Wisconsin Senator Russell Feingold, after Feingold declared his opposition to a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages: I don’t need to be lectured by you. You are no more a protector of the Constitution than am I. … If you want to leave, good riddance.

Russell Feingold to Arlen Specter: I’ve enjoyed your lecture, too, Mr. Chairman. See ya.

Arlen Specter, on the floor of the Senate during the morning of September 28, 2006: What this bill would do in striking habeas corpus would take our civilized society back some 900 years to King John at Runnymede which led to the adoption of the Magna Carta in 1215, which is the antecedent for habeas corpus and was the basis for including in the Constitution of the United States the principle that habeas corpus may not be suspended. … I believe it is unthinkable, out of the question, to enact federal legislation today which denies the habeas corpus. …

Arlen Specter to reporters on the evening of September 28, 2006, after he’d voted for the same bill: After reflecting on it, I decided to vote for it, because there are a lot of good provisions of the bill. Adherence to Geneva is very important. … If we don’t get a bill, there is going to be chaos, and the court is going to clean it up. The court is going to strike the provision on habeas corpus. In my opinion, it doesn’t have a ghost of a chance of standing, and there is severability. So the good parts of the bill will be retained.

Bruce Fein, attorney, former Reagan administration official, to Salon.com: The issue for Specter is: What does he think he is getting from this in terms of his reputation by just walking up to the line and flinching? He is not going to be president. What is his legacy going to be?

Mark Klugheit: The more difficult things seem, the more resolute he becomes. The surest way to get Arlen to do something is to tell him he can’t do it.

Ed Rendell: When the news broke that Arlen had cancer, I must have gotten five or six calls in the next 24 hours from prominent people saying, “I don’t mean to be ghoulish, but if anything happens to Arlen, I’d like to be considered for his Senate seat.” I said, “Guys, first, the guy is my friend and he gave me my first job, so you shouldn’t be calling me with this. But more important, Arlen’s going to outlive all of us.” They’re going to have to carry him out of the Senate. He’ll be a senator into his 80s, and he’ll be as energetic then as he is now.

Lynne Abraham: We just had the 40th reunion of Arlen’s election as D.A., at the law library in City Hall. Arlen said at that party if he feels like he feels now, he’ll run for reelection. And I believe him.

Neil Oxman: When I think of Arlen, I think of those horror movies where you think the guy is dead and in the coffin, and then the last scene is a shot of a hand coming up through the casket. That’s Arlen’s political career.

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