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.
But it is what they do when they are alive that matters — and no politician, aside from the 43 who have occupied the White House, is quite so alive in American politics as is a senator — and Specter, never adored but never ignored, accomplished far more than most.
Specter’s life, much analyzed in recent hours, is in many ways a primer on the possibilities of Senate life.
He chose his own path. No notable legislation, outside some health-funding initiatives, bear his name — as in Smoot-Hawley, or Taft-Hartley, or Gramm-Rudman. But that does not mean he wasn’t an effective senator. It means that he chose to do different work.
For the Senate works in mysterious ways. Part of its work is passing treaties (where Henry Cabot Lodge made his mark, though he did so by stopping the Versailles Treaty). Part of it is setting the agenda (which Edmund S. Muskie did on the environment and Hubert H. Humphrey did on race). And part of it is in confirming judges (and here Specter’s role, reviled by some and revered by others, with the reviling and revering sometimes swapping places, has no peer, at least in modern times).
Some work of the Senate also goes unnoticed by observers, even the eagle-eyed ones who peer so intently from the press gallery and listen so carefully to the quiet asides that change the time signature of the Senate in subtle ways, sometimes only from three-quarter time to six-eight but never without consequence. Specter was an indispensable member of the ensemble.
It is in setting the tone and timbre of a party caucus, or in altering the proceedings with a hushed interchange in the cloakroom, that the business of the Senate gets done. The Senate is a supple body, vulnerable to a probe here and a nudge there. It responds to personality, even when the person is not particularly personable. In these interchanges, Specter was immensely powerful.
It can be said that Lyndon Johnson made the Senate work, Mike Mansfield made it thoughtful, Robert J. Dole made it efficient and Howard H. Baker Jr. made it humane. Specter held no such high position as these men in the Senate, but nonetheless made it unpredictable.
In Specter’s time, the aides to the president on whose coattails he was swept into office in 1980 complained that Washington did not let Reagan be Reagan, yet everyone understood that the Senate let Specter be Specter.
Specter was, well, himself. But that “himself” was far more complicated, far more wracked by worry and doubt, than the self he portrayed, first as a Warren Commission defender of the single-bullet theory, then as a crusading opponent of the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, then as a prosecuting skeptic to the testimony of Anita Hill in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings.
Specter looked and behaved as if he had graduated from the Bronx High School of Science in New York. Instead, he was a graduate of Russell High School in Kansas. And therein lies perhaps the most remarkable Arlen Specter story of all.
Americans know Russell as the remote outpost of 4,800 that sent Bob Dole to war, the House, the Senate and a Republican presidential nomination. But Dole wasn’t the only senator with roots in Russell, where the local paper accepted chickens in payment for home-delivery subscriptions and where the broad fields sprouted wheat and oil pumps. Arlen Specter had them, too.
The two came from different cultures, though from the same side of the Kansas Pacific tracks. Dole’s father ran a cream-and-egg station, Specter’s a junkyard. Russell had no other Jews, excepting the mayor’s wife, and the Specter family moved to Philadelphia in part to help Arlen’s sister Shirley meet a nice Jewish boy like Edwin Kety, whom she married.
In Russell, Specter explored his introspective side. On the squash courts of Penn and Yale he discovered his aggressive side. Sen. Bob Packwood once broke Specter’s nose while playing squash, but Specter returned soon thereafter, wearing a hockey goalie’s mask.
The man was adept at drop shots and relished well-placed “rails” that made it difficult for opponents to respond. That was Arlen Specter. Maybe not always kind to opponents, but indisputably one of a kind.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette.