I knew Senator Arlen Specter a little bit and I was sorry yesterday to hear of his passing. He was a fighter. I think on that we can all agree.
Back in my political campaign days it was impossible not to run into him, to hear of him, to worry about what he thought of this person or that person. He was a huge presence that both frustrated and inspired Republicans in Pennsylvania (and I'm sure nationally.) He was frustrating obviously because of his inconsistent voting record and inspiring because he was proof that Republicans could win in Pennsylvania's suburbs.
His endorsement was a huge deal for candidates in the Philly suburbs. I dealt often with his beleaguered staff and occasionally with him. I say his staff was beleaguered because Specter, according to everything I ever heard, was very very tough to work for.
I remember a time, a decade ago now, I was setting up a press conference for a candidate with Senator Specter. I was very new to the campaign world. I told Specter's field person that we'd have it at a park and we'd talk about the environment.
"Where in the park?" the field director asked. "Where exactly?"
"Near the entrance," I said. "You'll see me."
"No. I need an exact location," she insisted. "Exact."
I laughed and said we'll have it "near" the entrance sign.
"When you say 'near,' how near the sign do you mean?" she asked.
"Uhm," I said, "I don't know maybe something like twenty or thirty feet because..."
"Twenty or thirty feet?" she interrupted. "Twenty or thirty?"
So I told her twenty five feet exactly in a sort of flippant manner.
Mind you, when the staff showed up an hour before the press conference she made certain to be standing exactly 25 feet from the sign. I asked her why she was being so exact and all she said was that "The Senator" was going to give her a nervous breakdown. She referred to him as "The Senator."
When the Senator showed up he insisted we call him "Arlen" and he was very gracious. To that press conference, I recall that not a lot of media showed up. That was on me. I think just the public television camera showed up and one local newspaper. My candidate was very apologetic but he brushed it off as no big deal. At one point I found myself alone with him and he turned to me and he asked if I'd set this up. He told me not to worry about the poor showing. He told me that he'd given press conferences where nobody at all showed up. "Those were my best ones," he smiled at me.
I thanked him for that. And just before he left he leaned in and said to me conspiratorially, "You know, this part of the park isn't in your candidate's district, right?"
Since it was redistricted last year, the district ended at the edge of the park, he told me.
I could feel my cheeks redden and all the air go out of me. I meekly insisted that I was pretty sure it was part of the district.
And he detailed it out as if he were drawing a map in the air through the streets as to the borders of the district. The man knew every neighborhood. Every street. Every. Single. One.
Then he pointed at the press people and said, "Don't worry. They'll never know."
I was very grateful to him that day. I never voted for him but I was grateful to him. He was kind to a young stranger and he had no reason in the world to be. I had more contact with him over the years until I left politics. He was always kind to me, funny. But I honestly don't think he ever remembered me one time to the next. At least I never got the feeling that he did.
But maybe that's what you got with Arlen Specter. You didn't know what to expect. The same man behind the verb "Bork" was the man who defended Clarence Thomas from Anita Hill's accusations.
Endorsing him over then challenger Pat Toomey, may very well have cost Senator Rick Santorum his job. But it was that same deal between Santorum and Specter that helped to get Samuel Alito and John Roberts on the Supreme Court. But after Specter switched parties to avoid a Republican primary he became the deciding vote for Obamacare. There was increasingly little space for Specter in an increasingly pro-life Republican party. And I believe that's a good thing.
In the end, his switch back to the Democrat Party was the final political maneuver he had left. He rejoined the party that he had abandoned a half century earlier. Republicans, in the end, resented him and Democrats didn't trust him. Politically, some Republicans will likely issue carefully worded statements about his passing. They might call him brilliant. Which he was. The Democrats will use his name to paint the Republicans as "too extreme" for a moderate politician because it's an election year. But I think that in the political world, he will soon be virtually forgotten. And that's an odd thing to say about a political figure who loomed large for more than a half a century. He was the author of the single bullet theory behind the JFK assassination. Yeah, he was around that long.
Some in coming days may praise his independent spirit but in the end I think to most people what may have been considered independence in earlier years just reeked of opportunism with the party switch. In the end, I think, that may be his legacy. He fought. He fought until the end. But for what?
When people believe you fought for no cause greater than yourself you may be quickly forgotten.
In the end, I'm grateful to Senator Specter for his kindness. He deserves my gratitude. And my prayers. He will have both.