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

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 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.