X

Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
WASHINGTON — The harsh glare of the single television spotlight made Arlen Specter’s face shine unnaturally, and his smile was tight and prearranged. The disembodied voice of CNBC’s Gloria Borger was working its way into Specter’s ear. Behind him, the rotunda of the Senate’s Russell Building glowed in the sunset. The conversation had turned to Richard Viguerie, the arch-conservative direct mail guru, and one of those most prominently opposing the Pennsylvania Republican’s ascension to the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I’m not about to make any deals with Richard Viguerie,” said Specter, his eyes blinking with intensity. “[N]obody elected Richard Viguerie to anything. Somebody ought to tell him.” He paused. “Maybe he watches your show, Gloria,” Specter said in his trademark drawl, cracking a sliver of a smile. It was late afternoon on Veterans Day, and the Capitol was shut tight. Yet here was Specter, possibly the only senator in the building, his staff in tow, on his eighth straight day of damage control. It was not supposed to be like this. Just 10 days earlier, Specter had won his fifth Senate election; the former Philadelphia prosecutor and Warren Commission staff member was now 14 months away from being the longest serving senator in the history of Pennsylvania — after fellow Republican Boise Penrose, who died in office on Dec. 31, 1921. He had survived a grueling primary against Rep. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., and an unexpectedly tough general election against Rep. Joseph Hoeffel, D-Pa. But when Specter takes over the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, as he now appears certain to do, he will be conspicuous more as the survivor of an infelicitous remark at a euphoric Nov. 3 press conference — that it was “unlikely” that the committee would confirm any judicial nominee who would overturn Roe v. Wade — than what his supporters say is a long and distinguished career of one of the Senate’s few remaining centrist Republicans. Specter has insisted — in 34 subsequent media interviews — that he was merely stating the obvious; but the Associated Press article, which ran shortly after the press conference, termed it more starkly, saying Specter had “bluntly warned” President George W. Bush not to nominate anyone who would seek to overturn abortion rights. An acrid battle followed, one which pitted Specter, working to defend his upcoming chairmanship with virtually no initial support from his GOP colleagues, against a highly mobilized base of secular conservatives, evangelical Christians, and radio talk show hosts. Specter immediately launched a full-throttle offensive, privately talking to colleagues, publicly reciting his mantra to television, radio and print reporters: “I have not and would not use a litmus test to deny confirmation to pro-life nominees.” The matter took precisely two weeks to resolve, ending with a second upbeat press conference on Thursday. Surrounded by his GOP committee colleagues, Specter issued a formal statement reiterating his loyal Republican bona fides. Laughing and smiling, everyone made nice. But Specter knows better. To him, the controversy was only the most recent episode of a long-running drama, one in which a Jewish Republican from an overwhelmingly Democratic city, a man who lost four elections before reaching the Senate, has survived for yet another day. “That’s the story of my life, I mean, really, it is,” Specter said in an interview with Recorder affiliate Legal Times. Taking Fire From All Sides It’s safe to say that Specter probably wishes he stayed several miles away from anything remotely resembling a comment on judicial nominations. Especially after Bush had gone to bat for the man, leaving the president’s far right flank unusually exposed. But Specter’s pro-choice, outspokenly independent brand of Republican politics had long been seen as traitorous by many conservative activists. Indeed, more than a year ago, he made the cover of the conservative National Review with the headline: “The Worst Republican Senator.” “This didn’t surprise me. They’ve been after me forever,” notes Specter. “I didn’t warn anyone about anything,” he adds about the Nov. 3 press conference. “But it made a good newspaper story and off Dr. Dobson and his group went,” he says, referring to James Dobson, the fatherly founder of the conservative advocacy group Focus on the Family. Indeed, after 24 years in the Senate (all of which have been spent on the Judiciary Committee), 14 years in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, and four failed runs for public office, he has weathered infinitely worse. Any political figure with four decades of public life manages to make headlines. Specter, however, seems to have prompted enough copy for a career twice as long. He is still regularly harangued for his central role in developing the single-bullet theory of the John F. Kennedy assassination, which eliminates conspiracy theorists’ second gunman by positing that the same bullet both killed President Kennedy and wounded Texas Gov. John Connally. In 1987, Specter helped derail the nomination of Judge Robert Bork for the U.S. Supreme Court, a vote that has led to continued hard feelings between the two men, and which many conservatives have never forgiven. “He hasn’t insulted me since yesterday,” Specter jokes as he walks through the deserted Senate hallways on Veterans Day. Bork had described Specter as “shifty” in a New York Times article the day before. Specter joined Democrats on the Judiciary Committee to vote against the 1986 nomination of Alabaman Jeff Sessions for a seat on the federal bench. Ten years later, Sessions was elected to the Senate and now sits with Specter on the committee. It’s a vote that Specter, who has since gotten to know Sessions, says he now regrets. In 1991, Specter provoked just as much ire in the liberal community, not simply for his support of Clarence Thomas for a seat on the Supreme Court, but for questioning the veracity of Anita Hill, who insisted that Thomas had sexually harassed her. To many people watching the televised hearings, Specter’s prosecutorial manner came across as insensitive and brutish. The Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings became a cause celebre; Specter’s 1992 Senate opponent, Lynn Yeakel, made it the sole issue in her campaign. Specter won in a three-way race, but he garnered only 49 percent of the vote. Then there was the 1998 impeachment vote over President Bill Clinton. Specter insisted on choosing a verdict for both articles of impeachment that was not part of U.S. jurisprudence. And while the choice of “not proven” did do justice to the Senate trial — because no witnesses were called — Specter invoked Scottish law to do it. And he added the phrase, “and therefore not guilty.” The additional caveat made a historic difference, at least on the obstruction charge outlined in the second article of impeachment, and only managed to resurrect the deep-seated anger conservatives still felt toward Specter about Bork. The vote to convict Clinton on obstruction charges ended with a 50-50 tie. If Specter had simply said “not proven,” then his vote would have been counted as “present.” In that case, the final vote tally, while still well short of the 67 needed to convict, would have been 50-49-1, at the very least a symbolic one-vote majority in favor of conviction. “Most conservatives felt he should have been there with the conference,” says a senior aide to a GOP member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “At least he could have helped us get 50 votes. But because of Specter, we didn’t even get a majority. And the worst part was he didn’t have the cojones to [vote "present"]. He pulls this Scottish law nonsense. It was more attitudinal than anything else.” When Specter was first elected to the Senate in 1980, there were at least a dozen other like-minded moderate to liberal Republicans in the Senate, people like Oregonians Bob Packwood and Mark Hatfield, Connecticut’s Lowell Weicker Jr., Wyoming’s Alan Simpson, Illinois’ Charles Percy; Maryland’s Charles “Mac” Mathias Jr., Missouri’s Jack Danforth, Rhode Island’s John Chafee; and Specter’s Pennsylvania colleague, John Heinz. Today, that number has dwindled to four: Maine’s two senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins; Chafee’s son, Lincoln; and Specter. Moderate James Jeffords of Vermont dropped out of the GOP in 2001 and became the Senate’s only independent. Despite his pro-choice stand, there’s no question Specter is a Republican. He’s in favor of capital punishment and voted against both the assault weapons ban and partial-birth abortion. And he has voted in favor of certain, but not all, civil justice reform, even though his son, Shanin, is a successful trial lawyer. He has also written significant crime legislation, including the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, which bolstered sentencing requirements for certain crimes committed with a gun, and the Terrorist Prosecution Act of 1986, which allows the government to prosecute people who murder, assault, or maim U.S. citizens abroad. He has also been active in social policy. Specter was the chief GOP sponsor of the Fair Housing Act amendments of 1988, and sponsored hate crimes legislation with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., in 1997. From his perch as chairman or ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee, he and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, have doubled funding for the National Institutes of Health over the past five years. A Republican by Chance Specter’s Republican Party credentials have been burnished over 40 years. But he was a Democrat until he first ran for elected office in 1965. By then, Specter was already well-known, at least in Philadelphia. As an assistant district attorney with a Yale Law School degree, he had led the prosecution of Teamsters Local 107, a corruption case that was followed closely by then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy in Washington. Specter’s success in the case led to a coveted staff slot on the Warren Commission. When he returned to Philadelphia, Specter was appointed by then-Gov. William Scranton to lead a special task force investigating the city’s judicial magistrate system, then steeped in bribe-taking and corruption. Though sometimes criticized for garnering headlines more than convictions, the investigation eventually led to the demise of the magistrate system in Philadelphia. And Specter launched his public career, deciding to run in 1965 for district attorney as a Democrat. The chairman of the Democratic City Committee, Frank Smith, turned him down, Specter recalls, telling him that “we don’t want a young Tom Dewey.” “So, then the Republicans offered me the nomination, no strings attached. I stayed a registered Democrat and ran on the Republican ticket,” Specter says. “The nomination wasn’t worth very much, but I shook every hand in town and won.” He changed his registration after he won. In fact, says Carl Feldbaum, an assistant district attorney under Specter who later became chief of staff in his Senate office, in Philadelphia in the early 1960s, Republicans were the reform party. “There had been a corrupt Democratic regime that had run the city for a long time, and they had driven it straight down hill,” adds Feldbaum, the outgoing president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Two years into his first term, Specter lost his bid for Philadelphia mayor by just 11,000 votes. He won a second term as DA in 1969, the last election he would win for 11 years. He lost his race for a third term as DA in 1973. “That campaign, plus his upset loss for the mayor, led to Specter taking nothing for granted thereafter,” says Joseph McLaughlin, a fellow at Temple University’s Institute of Public Affairs. “He became very focused, no matter how much of a lead he had,” says McLaughlin, who was an adviser to Specter’s 1973 opponent, Emmet Fitzpatrick. The losses, however, continued. In 1976, Specter was defeated in the Republican Senate primary by John Heinz. In 1978, he was defeated in the Republican gubernatorial primary by Richard Thornburgh, who became the commonwealth’s next governor. Specter ran for the Senate once again in 1980. This time he won with 50 percent of the vote. “This is a guy who is totally focused and extremely smart, with core beliefs,” says Shanin Specter, who is probably his father’s closest adviser. “And he has never been afraid to lose.” Outside the Lines He also grew up as something of an outsider, a trait that is still evident today. Specter’s father, Harry, was a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine who never had any formal education; his mother, Lillian Shanin Specter, came from a small town near the Russian-Polish border. The family moved to Russell, Kan., former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole’s hometown, in 1942, when Specter was 12. By then, Specter’s father had a scrap metal business recycling iron from oil derricks. They weighed their metal at the Russell Grainery, which was run by Dole’s father. The Specters were the only Jewish family in Russell, and this sense of being an outsider, believes Specter’s longtime friend and fund-raiser Stephen Harmelin, helped shape Specter’s career. “He had the indignation that only someone outside the system could have,” says Harmelin, the managing partner at Philadelphia’s Dilworth Paxson, who first met Specter in 1965. “I would assume the insularity and recognition of your difference from the majority plays on your personality.” Specter says he wanted to go to the University of Kansas, but there were no Jewish fraternities there in 1948, so he switched to the University of Oklahoma for one year before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where his parents had by then moved. Two years ago, recalls Specter, the chancellor of the University of Kansas, Robert Hemenway, came to see him. “I thought he wanted money, but he wanted me to come to Dole’s 80th birthday,” says Specter, referring to his slot as the chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that often earmarks money for universities. “I said, ‘You know you excluded Jews at the University of Kansas from fraternities.’ He about fell off his chair. “I wasn’t looking for an opportunity to tell him what a Neanderthal they were, but I took it,” Specter says. Taking the Helm With Specter chairing the Judiciary Committee, it may be even easier for President Bush to get his conservative judicial appointments through the committee. Democrats will have a harder time justifying opposition to a nominee the moderate Specter supports. “If Specter will put his seal of approval on a nominee, you get the left side [of the committee] and you obviously get the right side because it’s the president’s pick,” says conservative Philadelphia radio talk show host Michael Smerconish, a friend of Specter. There are at least two other areas where Specter seems almost certain to push the committee beyond its current role, says fellow committee member Joseph Biden Jr., D-Del., who is also a longtime friend. “Oversight will be significantly greater with Specter. That’s just his nature,” says Biden. In fact, Specter drew attention in the late 1990s for his extended, and somewhat singular, inquiry into then-Attorney General Janet Reno’s performance. There will also be renewed emphasis on the entire criminal justice system. “This man’s a prosecutor, so he’s very, very fastidious, and correctly so and jealous of the Senate’s prerogatives,” Biden says. “So I don’t think the agencies are going to push him around.” Specter himself is keeping mum about his plans for the Judiciary Committee. The last two weeks have given him good reason to watch what he says. “It really would be unwise to talk too much about it,” he says. “Whatever I say will be picked apart. Everything I will do will have people who don’t like it.” T.R. Goldman is a reporter with Legal Times, a Recorder affiliate based in Washington, D.C.

This content has been archived. It is available exclusively through our partner LexisNexis®.

To view this content, please continue to Lexis Advance®.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber? Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® is now the exclusive third party online distributor of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® customers will be able to access and use ALM's content by subscribing to the LexisNexis® services via Lexis Advance®. This includes content from the National Law Journal®, The American Lawyer®, Law Technology News®, The New York Law Journal® and Corporate Counsel®, as well as ALM's other newspapers, directories, legal treatises, published and unpublished court opinions, and other sources of legal information.

ALM's content plays a significant role in your work and research, and now through this alliance LexisNexis® will bring you access to an even more comprehensive collection of legal content.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

 
 

ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.