When Arlen Specter, a five-term Senate veteran, announced that he would return to the Democratic Party, my land line and iPhone went into overload. For Arlen Specter has been a friend of my family's for over 30 years. Our family does not see him often, however. At our daughter's wedding, she welcomed him, thinking he was someone else. I told her not to feel bad. Throughout his political life, Specter has been called far worse than the wrong name.
From the first moment that Arlen Specter, a Democrat, received the Republicans' nod to run on their ticket as a Democrat for the office of Philadelphia's District Attorney, he has been controversial. After winning this 1966 election, Specter became a Republican.
Yet throughout his Senate years right-wing Republicans have insisted that Arlen remains a "dangerous liberal." The Republican Club for Growth, which ruthlessly targets moderate Republican incumbents, has labeled him "devoted to more spending, more bailouts, and less economic freedom."
Liberals, on the other hand, often brand Specter a turncoat opportunist who cares only about amassing and maintaining personal power. But the truth about this very tough and complex man and brilliant attorney cannot be simplistically assessed.
For many liberals, the apex of sheer antagonism toward Specter was the Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991, an episode that threatened Specter's reelection and one that caused the New York Times to describe his treatment of Anita Hill as that of a "mean spirited prosecutor."
However, turn the clock back just four years to 1987. That is when Specter helped torpedo Robert Bork's candidacy for the Supreme Court, and a new verb, "to bork," was birthed. That time conservatives were sickened and liberals delighted.
Indeed, some conservatives wanted to destroy Specter at his next reelection. I think that the reason Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh did not stand against him in 1992 was that Thornburgh was told by Republican leadership that Specter could win the general election, while he could not. And Specter always deeply appreciated not having to go through the kind of bruising primary he would endure and win against Pat Toomey six years ago. I have always viewed Specter's support of Clarence Thomas as his payback to those who supported him in 1992.
To appreciate Arlen Specter's quality of leadership it is necessary to look back at his initial win as Philadelphia's District Attorney in 1966. Before Specter, the Philadelphia D.A.'s office was a home to those with political clout and connection, regardless of degree of competence, skill, work ethic or character. Arlen Specter changed all of that. Specter hired excellent, much sought-after assistant D.A.s regardless of their political views or persuasion. What he wanted was brilliance and competence, and he was the most loyal of bosses and mentors. Among the many Republican and Democratic future stars he hired are Governor Ed Rendell, who may have returned to New York had it not been for Specter. Philadelphia's District Attorney, Lynne Abraham, was hired and nurtured when few women were given this opportunity. There are federal and common pleas judges, first hired by Specter, who have served and continue to serve with distinction, as do countless community leaders. Further, Arlen Specter was one of the first D.A.s in the country to see that a lack of education and family and community stability led to rises in crime. The community programs that Specter initiated and fostered broke dramatic new ground.
In 2004 right-wing ideologues were determined to brutalize and destroy Arlen Specter. Many of his Democratic supporters, including my husband and me, temporarily changed their registration to vote for him in the primary against Pat Toomey. Specter won by just 17,200 votes, and his entire campaign chest of $15.3 million was depleted.
Now six years later, here are the facts: Toomey is once again in the race. Arlen Specter is one of three Republicans to vote for Obama's stimulus legislation. Polls indicate that Toomey will win a primary if Specter cannot get thousands of Republicans who have changed their registration to flip back, at least temporarily, to vote for him.
Specter called his decision to leave the Republican Party "painful," which, knowing him, I believe to be an understatement. For the Republican Party offered Specter a coveted once-in-a-lifetime opportunity both to serve and to become prominent. And Arlen Specter is fiercely loyal, personally and politically, to those loyal to him.
However, Pennsylvania's 79-year-old veteran of 29 years in the Senate, a man who has stared down cancer without flinching, is a pragmatic and determined survivor. Arlen Specter well knows that the Republican Party that deserved his loyalty and independent thought no longer exists.
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