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.