Irritating Them All
He won his first election--for Philadelphia district attorney in 1965--on the GOP ticket, while still a registered Democrat. The notoriously shady Democratic machine wouldn't help him. The GOP needed a candidate; Specter was looking for an opportunity. The man had met his moment. But "I was apprehensive about running on the Republican ticket, which was almost like changing my religion," Specter writes in Passion for Truth. He was called "Benedict Arlen," and charges of disloyalty and opportunism have followed him ever since. (He registered Republican in December 1965.)
It is largely his inscrutable political identity that has made him such a curiosity for such a long time. There have been plenty of ups and downs. Specter ran for Philadelphia mayor in 1967 and lost, was re-elected as DA in 1969 and then defeated for re-election in 1973. And the losing wasn't over. He lost a GOP primary for the Senate to John Heinz in 1976 and a gubernatorial primary to Richard Thornburgh in 1978.
Tenacious. "In 1980, he had lost three consecutive elections . . . and a lot of people had written him off as among the political dead," says his son Shanin, "but he never lost confidence in his abilities." In 1980, Specter was finally elected to the Senate, and last year he was elected to a fifth term, a record in Pennsylvania.
"Pennsylvania is a very tough state; people don't last long in Pennsylvania politics," brags Specter. But he has--and now he is just where he wants to be. "The seniority [system] in the Senate ordinarily [is] a system where you have to be feeble before you have any power," he says. "I'm not feeble, so I'm up and at 'em."
But up a little slower lately. Specter was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma last February. He needs more sleep and an alarm to wake up. "As long as I am very heavily engaged, I'm fine," he says. "The chemotherapy is a very rugged regimen, without any question, but I haven't missed a meeting." The treatments have left him bald and gaunt, which he says feels like a form of identity theft. But he has tried to turn the situation into an outlet for his inner comedian. "I saw a picture of myself in the paper the other day, and I didn't recognize me," he says. "I looked like [former Senate legends] Sam Rayburn and Richard Russell, [drumroll] shortly after they died."
"He harbors a long-standing desire to be a stand-up comic," says Shanin Specter, "and he practices on his job."
Specter's approach to his illness has been to just keep working--not surprising for a man who's known to drive his staff hard and himself even harder. "I drag myself out of bed," he says, "and I come and face the problems in the Senate, and that is a lot easier on me than staying in bed and feeling sorry for myself."
There will be plenty of problems and challenges to face this week. Specter is known to run a tight ship as Senate Judiciary chairman, but the Roberts hearings are certain to be a political three-ring circus, at least part of the time. Specter has been on the Judiciary Committee since he was elected in 1980, and he understands that the panel's nature is extreme.