Arlen Specter, irascible contrarian

    The best way to mark Arlen Specter’s death is to pluck a telling episode from his protean life. It’s not enough to say that Pennsylvania’s longest serving senator was a “moderate” or a “centrist,” although those labels are basically accurate.

    It’s probably more precise to say that he was an instinctive contrarian — maddeningly and irascably independent — which is why he ticked off so many people in his 30 years on the job.

    Hey, good for him. We always complain about slick politicians who smile artificially and tell us only what we want to hear. But nobody ever complained that way about Arlen. First of all, he rarely smiled. Second, he generally told people only what he wanted to hear. During his ill-fated bid for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, back when the GOP still had moderates in its ranks, he told a meeting of conservative Iowans that he supported abortion rights and opposed “immigrant bashing.” He was booed and jeered before, during, and after the speech. He soldiered on anyway, impervious to the rites of pandering.

    But that’s not even the episode I wanted to tell you about. When I think of Arlen (everybody called him Arlen), I harken back to early 1999, when the Senate was weighing whether to eject Bill Clinton from the presidency.

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    In the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Republican majority had two choices: It could decide that Clinton had lied under oath about sex, and thus was “guilty” of high crimes and misdemeanors; or it could pronounce him “not guilty.” Most Republicans said he was guilty. Democrats said he was not. But Arlen didn’t like either option, so he came up wth his own solution. He declared that he would vote for “not proven.” What the heck was “not proven?” No such verdict existed under Senate rules. Arlen simply explained that “not proven” was a midway verdict he had plucked from the legal code of. . . Scotland.

    Or take this more recent example, from 2006. The Republican Senate was pondering a bill, sought by the Bush White House, to loosen the rules governing the prosecution of terror suspects in front of military tribunals. Arlen was vocally upset. He assailed the Bush regime for proposing to use evidence seized in America without a search warrant. He assailed the proposed use of evidence obtained via cruel and inhuman treatment. He was angry that terrorist suspects would have fewer legal avenues for challenging their detention. Arlen said publicly, “What this bill seeks to do is set back basic rights by some 900 years,” referring to the Magna Carta, which had established the right of a suspect to contest his jailing. Civil libertarians cheered for Arlen. Democrats cheered for Arlen.

    Then Arlen turned around and voted Yes on the bill.

    Like him or not, he was always his own guy, abrasively comfortable in his thick skin. Maybe it all stemmed from childhood, when he was one of the only Jews in a small Kansas town. Whatever the reason, his dogged independence spoke for itself: Supporter of abortion rights. Supporter of Clarence Thomas (and scourge of accuser Anita Hill). Opponent of Reagan high court nominee Robert Bork. Supporter of affirmative action. Opponent of gun control, and supporter of the death penalty. In an era of ever-increasing ideological purity, he took hits from all sides, yet he never broke character and exposed any wounds. He had a motto, to which he relentlessly adhered: “Never let your face show how hard your ass has been kicked.”

    His political luck finally ran out in 2010. After switching to the Democratic party in 2009 – there was no way that a moderate incumbent could survive a right-leaning Republican Senate primary – he wound up losing the nomination to Joe Sestak, who ran to Arlen’s left and thus proved that a moderate couldn’t survive a Democratic Senate primary either. Arlen subsequently surfaced every now and then, perhaps most famously this past March, on the Morning Joeshow, where he quipped: “The Republican party has moved so far to the right, you can’t recognize Mitt Romney. . . Mitt Romney has changed positions more often than a pornographic movie queen.”

    I suppose that some people could say the same about Arlen, but, if so, he wouldn’t have cared. Arlen was too busy being Arlen. Can you name another octogenarian who has tried stand-up comedy (indeed he did) after surviving heart surgery and two brain tumors?

    But seriously, folks. If Arlen is to be remembered for any one achievement, look no further than a key episode in 2009. President Obama’s health care reform bill was hanging in the balance, needing 60 Senate votes to break the usual Republican obstructionism. Arlen, fresh from his Republican exodus and new to the Democratic ranks, provided that crucial 60th vote. Did he do so out of deep conviction or political calculation? Who knows. But here’s the bottom line:

    Millions of uninsured Americans, millions of kids with pre-existing health conditions, and millions of young adults now on their parents’ coverage, all owe a debt of gratitude to Arlen Specter. That vote alone is a sufficient legacy. Wherever he is now, surely even he would summon a smile about that.


    I did a freeze-frame assessment of the presidential race in my Sunday newspaper column. Joe Biden got Democrats to remove their heads from the oven, but one nervous partisan told me yesterday that he’s keeping his oven on warm.


    I did a Live Chat today, on the latest political developments. I fielded the best questions.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


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