Irritating Them All
The man with the gavel, Arlen Specter, 75, of Pennsylvania, Republican chair of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, is, depending on who's talking, a contradiction, a compromise, or a curse. He has been called pragmatic, erratic, and opportunistic. Over a political life of more than 40 years, he has bucked the odds, defied conventional wisdom, and sailed against the wind. But he's no cliche.
A moderate in a party increasingly controlled by conservatives, Specter is pro-abortion rights in a GOP that is antiabortion to its core. He is a contrarian often at odds with fellow Republicans, not just on abortion but on issues like tax cuts and tobacco litigation. He enjoys quoting a popular Democrat on party fealty: "JFK had the best line on that," Specter says, "when he said that sometimes the party asks too much." But Specter annoys the other side, too. His continued political survival remains a source of deep frustration for Democrats, who see him as perpetually vulnerable--but impossible to beat.
Always, he has been singularly Arlen Specter, infuriating his friends and confounding his enemies. It is hard to know what to expect from Arlen Specter. Which is why it will be so fascinating to watch him this week as he chairs the Judiciary Committee's hearings on Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts.
Roots. Born in Kansas in Wichita, Specter grew up in the town of Russell, which also claims former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole as a native son. Dole was seven years older and a basketball star; Specter was on the debating team at the same high school. Specter's parents were Jewish immigrants, his father from Ukraine, his mother from Russia. His father ran a junkyard.
Specter went east to college, at the University of Pennsylvania, and then, after a stint in the Air Force, graduated from Yale Law School. After three years at a prestigious Philadelphia firm, Specter joined the Philadelphia district attorney's office in 1959 as an assistant D.A. It was while he was a prosecutor in Philadelphia, in December 1963, that he was invited by a law school friend at the Justice Department to join the staff of the Warren Commission. In that position, Specter, dogged and determined, developed the single-bullet theory to explain how a lone gunman had fired the single shot that killed President Kennedy and injured Texas Gov. John Connally, who was in the car with him.
"I now call it the single-bullet conclusion," Specter writes in his memoir, Passion for Truth. "It began as a theory, but when a theory is established by the facts, it deserves to be called a conclusion." As a commission investigator, Specter drafted 78 questions to ask Lyndon Johnson, "who would, under other circumstances, have been considered a prime suspect." Specter said he didn't think Johnson had anything to do with the assassination, but "no self-respecting investigator would omit a thorough investigation of the slain president's successor." Those questions were never asked, because Johnson submitted just a brief affidavit. But Specter was ready.