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

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.”