Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

thescroll_header

Arlen Specter (1930-2012)

The former U.S. senator loved Jackie Mason and the political center

Print Email
Forner U.S. Senator Arlen Specter(Mike Wilson, Getty)

When former U.S. Senator Arlen Specter was very young, the story goes, he would accompany his father–a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine–and go door to door to peddle cantaloupes during the Great Depression.

The pair moved quickly because local grocers didn’t appreciate the traveling Jewish salesman who took some of their customers. The grocers often called the local sheriff, and the Specters would be hustled out of town.

There is something about this story that emblematizes Specter, the longest-serving senator in Pennsylvania history, who died yesterday morning at age 82. It seems that throughout his life, Specter was constantly performing a feat of survival, both physically and politically, with an outsider’s will that frequently made others want to hustle him out of town.

“When you’re Jewish, you’re different. But I was always fiercely Jewish. I was proud to be Jewish. It was what I was. It was me.”

As tributes began to pour in Specter words like irascible, indefatigable, pedantic, and independent lead the list of euphemisms for a man who was a polarizing political institution during some of the biggest moments in the last few decades of American life. Specter initially entered politics as a Democrat and finished as one, but spent the vast majority of his career as a Republican, including all but one of his 30 years in the Senate. Specter’s place as a moderate enraged and provoked. After all, he was a pro-gay rights, pro-choice Republican who favored stem-cell research, opposed the impeachment of President Clinton, and, as a leading voice on the Senate Judiciary Committee, he nearly single-handedly derailed the nomination of conservative Judge Robert Bork in 1987.

Specter, dubbed “Snarlin’ Arlen” by some of his colleagues, also enraged the left by forging an alliance with ultra-conservative Rick Santorum and supporting the nomination of Clarence Thomas. During the Thomas hearing, Specter infamously led a forceful line of questioning against Anita Hill, a law professor who accused Justice Thomas of sexual harassment when the two worked together. The fallout from the hearing nearly cost Specter his senate seat.

Nevertheless, Specter continued to survive, despite occupying the centrist terrain that often left him scrambling to forge a coalition of supporters. For someone who had grown up in the only Jewish family in the town of Russell, Kansas, he had a knack for endurance. It led him through battles with multiple brain tumors, a heart attack, and two bouts with Hodgkin’s disease.

“No public servant or elected official has done more for the people of Pennsylvania in their career, with the possible exception of Benjamin Franklin,” Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell said on Sunday.

His family left Kansas for Philadelphia–“so my sister could meet and marry a nice Jewish boy,” Specter once explained– and he decamped for the University of Pennsylvania, graduated Phi Beta Kappa, went to the Air Force, and Yale Law School. He served on the Warren Commission and took personal credit for the single bullet theory in the Kennedy assassination findings. Specter also managed to gain the endorsements of President Bush in 2004 and President Obama in 2010. But perhaps most impressively, as a longtime fan of Jackie Mason, Specter took up stand-up comedy as a hobby, citing his years in Washington as a place for practice.

Specter would eventually run out of room to maneuver. With the rise of the Tea Party in 2009, Specter found his election prospects grim in a Republican party that had moved to the right. Following his support for the stimulus bill and with his position imperiled, Specter switched to the Democratic Party, only to lose in the primary. Specter’s political demise may have rung the death knell for an era in American politics where moderates moved forcefully between the seams.

Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Senator, Is Dead at 82 [NYT]
Sen. Specter Dies, His Fighting Spirit Praised [Inquirer]

Print Email

COMMENTING CHARGES
Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

WAIT, WHY DO I HAVE TO PAY TO COMMENT?
Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

I NEED TO BE HEARD! BUT I DONT WANT TO PAY.
Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at letters@tabletmag.com. Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

bobschwalbaum says:

Whatever else you may say about Specter.. he was instrumental in getting Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court.. by his take-down of the grotesque Anita Hill

2000

Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Arlen Specter (1930-2012)

The former U.S. senator loved Jackie Mason and the political center

More on Tablet:

A Grandfather’s Hidden Love Letters From Nazi Germany Reveal a Buried Past

By Vox Tablet — Reporter Sarah Wildman’s grandfather escaped Vienna in 1938. Long after he died, she discovered the life—and lover—he left behind.