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

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.