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.