ONE HOUR before the Senate Judiciary Committee would begin questioning Judge John Roberts, I sat in the Senate Hart Office Building with U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, and asked him to share with me his first query.
This was going to be quite a moment even for Pennsylvania's senior senator, who at 75 has enjoyed a career with many milestones: the Warren Commission, Bork, Hill/Thomas and the Clinton impeachment, to name a few.
Arlen Specter has not only been a witness but an active participant in these and many other history-defining moments. Too often, we take that for granted.
This time, the world would be watching on cable TV. They'd be tuning in down at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The right-to-lifers. The pro-choice crowd. The women over at NOW. Everyone with an ax to grind. All wanting to see not only how the nominee for chief justice would comport himself, but also how Specter would handle his first test as committee chairman, a post that had almost been denied him by a right-wing challenge.
This is all the more reason that Specter's answer to my question would have floored those who do not know him well:
"I haven't completely formulated it in my mind," he told me.
This is not to say that Arlen Specter was unprepared for this moment. To the contrary, he may not have required the dress rehearsal that Chuck Schumer felt necessary, but he had spent his entire career getting ready for this encounter. And despite fighting cancer through the spring and summer, this Philadelphia lawyer from an era where that phrase had meaning, was on top of his game.
Sen. Specter told me that he intended to question Judge Roberts about stare decisis (the judicial rule of precedents), and get as close as possible to a discussion of Roe v. Wade. And that is precisely what he did.
Where his 17 colleagues found it necessary to rely on a script, Specter relied upon his intellect.
The contrast in his manner of questioning compared to that of the other members of the Judiciary Committee was striking. Specter predicated his follow-up questions on what Roberts actually said - the others were so busy moving from one written question to another that they didn't stop to listen to his answers.
I'm talking about both the R's and D's. Hatch and Leahy. Grassley and Biden. They were so rehearsed that you wonder how they have the ability on the campaign trail to get re-elected every six years.
To the extent that Roberts had any legal equal in the room, it was Specter. True to his word, Specter got right to the issue that was on everyone's mind:
"I start with the central issue which perhaps concerns most Americans, and that is the issue of the women's right to choose and Roe v. Wade. And I begin collaterally with the issue of stare decisis and the issue of precedence."
The response he elicited from Roberts in the first five minutes of the first substantive hearing was as fruitful as any other would be in the many hours to come. The former Philadelphia D.A. couldn't resist rolling out a trial exhibit, a blow-up, which he said documented 38 occasions on which the Roe case had been taken up to the Supreme Court since it was first decided. Specter thinks that makes it a "super-duper precedent."
Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote Judge Roberts out of committee, as it should. There is no stopping his nomination to become chief justice of the United States. That will represent a victory for Judge Roberts and a feather in the cap of Arlen Specter.