, Salem, MA


October 20, 2012

Shribman: Master of survival


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.

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