Off the Cuff: March 2006

AN ADDICTION OF mine — one that, like smoking, should be stopped immediately — is watching the roundup of political shows on Sunday mornings. You would think that reading the Inquirer and the Times would give me plenty to be disgusted about. But no, I take it one step further, by listening to the would-be leading lights of both political parties prattle on about their wonderful ideas and how lousy the other side’s are. As soon as this happens — as it does every Sunday morning — I start wishing I were sipping a scotch and puffing a Lucky. But at 10 a.m., it’s far too early to cast a friendly eye toward the liquor cabinet, and I quit smoking decades ago. So I shout at the TV instead.

But then, a couple weeks ago, halfway into Meet the Press, after new House Majority Leader John Boehner danced his way around questions on a raft of issues, Arlen Specter came on, and the tenor of the show changed. Specter was thoughtful and direct, and his piercing intelligence immediately came through. Better yet, I felt he was telling me what he really believed.

The funny thing is, Arlen was once the epitome of what’s wrong with politics. He was nakedly ambitious, and getting to the next level was his driving force; starting as a liberal Democrat, he changed parties because the Republicans offered a faster path to becoming D.A. in this city. He was the guy who came up with the magic-bullet theory of a lone gunman in the assassination of President Kennedy. The guy who shredded Anita Hill in the Clarence Thomas hearings (it was great theater, if your idea of drama is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and eviscerated Robert Bork (well done!). An ardent supporter of Israel, women’s rights and the NRA, Arlen has managed to align himself with, and then alienate, pretty much everybody at one time or another.

But it turns out — and this is really unusual for a politician — he doesn’t care what others think. And that includes — and this is really unusual for a politician — what other members of his own party think. At this point, it seems like Arlen has been around forever; he’s survived a brain tumor and is fighting back from Hodgkin’s disease (there he was, still plugging away with no hair), and he seems even more determined to take whatever position he damn well pleases. He now comes through as a voice of reason and integrity, standing up both to the zealots in Congress and to presidential initiatives that he finds lacking.

So I watched — and listened! — as he argued on Meet the Press that the Bush administration hasn’t adequately explained why it did not get court approval for domestic spying. Specter cited a 1978 law requiring a secret court’s approval, and said he considers Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s explanations for circumventing that process “strained and unrealistic.”

It wasn’t what he was saying that impressed me the most. There was something novel going on, something downright original: Arlen was fighting for what he thinks is right. At this point, that’s all he’s got. There’s no higher office he’s chasing. All those years of taking whatever side of an issue suited him means he doesn’t owe anybody anything. Imagine a senator taking a stand that he truly feels strongly about: That, for Washington, is a radical notion.

How fitting it was, then, that Specter, as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, presided over the nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Roberts’s nomination was a slam dunk, but everybody was watching which way Specter would go with Alito: hammer him à la Bork, or use that prosecutor’s zeal to get Alito critics turning tail. The telling thing was that we didn’t know, until the hearing itself. And that is what now makes Arlen Specter special, and has got me listening.