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.
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.
"It is a very polarized committee," he says. "It is what induces people to be on the Judiciary Committee: They have strong views one way or another. On one end of the political spectrum you have [Illinois Democrat Richard] Durbin and [Charles] Schumer; then you have [Edward] Kennedy and [Joseph] Biden. On the other side you have [Republicans] Orrin Hatch, Jeff Sessions [of Alabama], and Chuck Grassley [of Iowa], who are very conservative."
In the middle sits Specter, whose infamy partly comes from having aligned himself with those extreme factions at different--and crucial--times in the recent past.
First there was his contentious cross-examination of Robert Bork in 1987, which helped kill Bork's nomination to the court and turned Specter into a lifelong pariah among conservatives, followed by his ferocious questioning of Anita Hill, which may have salvaged Clarence Thomas's chances of confirmation in 1991. For this liberals continue to despise him.
"He does not have a whole lot of respect for the viewpoints of those at the extremes of both ends of the political process," says his son Shanin. "So when he is criticized by the extremists, he takes it as an affirmation of the rightness of what he is doing."
After a tough re-election fight last year, Specter caused an uproar among conservatives when he seemed to warn that an openly antiabortion nominee to the Supreme Court would have trouble getting confirmed. Conservatives launched a campaign to deny Specter chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, forcing the senator to lobby his Senate colleagues for the job.
Getting mad. In the end, of course, he got the position he wanted, and now he's going to do as he pleases. Specter will almost certainly vote to confirm Roberts, but the nominee won't be getting any free passes from the chairman. In preparation for the Roberts hearing, Specter says he has spent a lot of time reading in his den in Philadelphia, getting madder by the minute.
"It surprised me how far the court has gone in deriding congressional authority," he says.
"To read opinions that say that an act is unconstitutional because of 'our method of reasoning' . . . . How insulting!" says Specter, who takes great pride in his reasoning. "I mean, who in the hell are they?"
Born: Feb. 12, 1930
Education: U. of Pa., B.A., 1951. Yale Law, 1956
Public service: Asst. DA, Philadelphia, 1959-64; Warren Commission, 1964; Philadelphia DA, 1966-1974; U.S. senator, 1980-present
This story appears in the September 12, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.