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Leaving the Party: The Journey of Arlen Specter

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There is only one reason that I am glad that Arlen Specter lost his heated Pennsylvania Democratic primary to Joe Sestak: As his friend for over 40 years, I will no longer feel compelled again and again to try to explain his decisions or describe, with examples, the core of goodness in this complex man.

Before very long, out of the glare of public office, Arlen's actions and his reasons for them will become more and more apparent; and I will be off of my boring soap-box explanation that hopefully, because of the luck of parenting, surroundings, and opportunity, we learn right from wrong. But even when we know, to survive in the real world, there may be times when we are forced to do wrong. And what is essential is to know the difference.

In the months that follow it will become apparent that contrary to what many believe, Arlen Specter has always known the difference between right and wrong, demonstrating the following work ethic again and again:
1. Study Hard, Work Hard, Learn
2. Contribute to the Greater Good
3. Remain extremely loyal to those who give you this opportunity

This third area has been the Specter culprit of misunderstanding.

As a young man Arlen Specter was a liberal Democrat, an attorney in the Philadelphia District Attorney's office, where patronage and ineptitude ruled. The Democrats refused to give him a chance to run for District Attorney and work toward something different, but the Republicans offered this opportunity.

In 1965, at the age of 35, Arlen ran for District Attorney as an American for Democratic Action endorsed liberal Democrat on the Republican ticket, and he won. Soon after this victory he became a Republican, and the DA's office he built because a model that progressive cities try to emulate to this day.

Later in 1967, again with liberal ADA backing, and as a Republican, he ran for Mayor and was defeated. But the race was close, and many believe it would have been won had Arlen not refused to promise to reappoint the controversial and charismatic Philadelphia police commissioner, Frank Rizzo, known at this time for his penchant for brutality of young African Americans. To understand the complex, overtly sexual appeal of the Rizzo persona, picture Sarah Palin, and add a whip to the belt of her black leather suit. Now picture her as a huge macho male, night stick replacing whip.

Arlen ran again successfully for DA in 1969, but was defeated in 1973 in a climate contaminated by the era of Watergate, when, as one pundit of the time explained: "If Micky Mouse ran as a Democrat, he would have won." In the years that followed Arlen lost elections for both Senator and Governor, running again for the Senate in 1980. Ronald Reagan's victory carried Arlen to office.

It was the events in these years that moved Arlen toward a bedrock loyalty to those who could keep him in office, and to controversial decisions his fiercest critics have neither understood nor forgiven.

Without this shift he would not have been able to keep bringing in millions to protect Pennsylvania jobs as well as protect all of us with fierce devotion to medical research; with special concentration on stem cell research and the health of women and children, so often overlooked; and so much more.

In listening for so many years to the many voices of those who could not see the good that motivated Arlen, those who consistently labeled him "opportunistic," rather than study his accomplishments and view what he did as a way to survive and continue to serve his state, his country, and beyond, I began to understand human nature more clearly, and to also understand (and even accept) the limits of communication.

Arlen's fine mind and education is a gift that many ambitious people share. It is so hard to see and accept that the capacity for envy is within each of us, and how blinding its glare can be if we do not face this monster for what it is. So many, envious of all Arlen Specter was able to do, could see only what he was forced to do, in its most negative light.

And there was another psychological factor at work: We all hate the things in ourselves that we are the most ashamed of. It is so much easier, rather than to look inward, to point to another and find a home for displaced shame.

Arlen Specter left one Party to serve, and another Party to continue to serve after one of the bravest votes of his long career, his support of the stimulus package. Yes, the right wing Republicans, who have so destroyed the soul of a party they claim to love, are right. Arlen Specter never left the Democratic Party. It was the reasons he never left, his commitment to hope, promise and protection, that elude them. For his remaining years Arlen Specter wanted to come home.