, Salem, MA


October 20, 2012

Shribman: Master of survival

The U.S. Senate is an exclusive but peculiar American institution, its members elected by democratic means but its pace and processes guided by anti-democratic instincts. It is small, intimate. The addition or removal of a single senator can change the entire character of the chamber. A single senator can enforce his will on his colleagues and on the nation. A single senator can impose his personality on the body, to ends good or ill. The rules do not distinguish between the two.

Since the earliest days of the nation, some 2,200 Americans have served in the Senate. Many have used its rhythms and totems to express their individualism, to assert it, to preserve it —and to celebrate it.

This week the Senate will pause to mark the passing of one who in every sense of the word was one of its own: Arlen Specter, veteran of five terms, dead this week at 82.

Among America’s 2,200 senators, there have been 2,200 types. The stentorian orator (Daniel Webster). The brilliant philosopher (John C. Calhoun). The great compromiser (Henry Clay). The radical zealot (Charles Sumner). The intellectual diplomatist (Henry Cabot Lodge). The fiery populist (Huey Long). The homespun fount of integrity (Sam Ervin). The racist firebrand (Theodore G. Bilbo). The geeky Senate supremacist (Robert C. Byrd). The master appropriator (John C. Stennis). The obdurate obstructionist (Strom Thurmond).

To that we add: the gritty survivor (Arlen Specter).

Specter was a trifecta survivor, surmounting threats electoral (he never glided to election), political (he swapped parties in what he hoped was midstream only to find that it wasn’t) and medical (he suffered from more cancer than perhaps any senator of any time). In the end, he succumbed to all three. That is one of the few things he had in common with the rest of his colleagues. In the long run, to paraphrase economist John Maynard Keynes, they all pass on.

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