Re­mem­ber­ing Sen. Specter

The Colonial - - OPINION -

Arlen Specter, who died this past week­end, has been cred­ited above all with be­ing one thing: a sur­vivor. He was the per­fect Dar­winian adap­tor to the cul­ture of Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and the times he lived in. More than that, he sur­vived health is­sues (can­cer, brain tu­mors, etc.) to which lesser men would have more meekly sur­ren­dered.

But Specter was so much more than a mere sur­vivor, be­cause he sur­vived to do im­por­tant things, not the least of which was be­ing a clar­ion call for a less par­ti­san, less poi­soned en­vi­ron­ment that still val­ued com­pro­mise over dead­lock.

For our money his most laud­able ac­com­plish­ment was his con­stant pur­suit of more fed­eral money for med­i­cal re­search.

When he be­came Penn­syl­va­nia’s ju­nior se­na­tor in 1981, the an­nual bud­get for the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health was $3 bil­lion. By the time of his re­tire­ment (at the hands of Delco Demo­cratic up­start Joe Ses­tak) in 2010, that fig­ure had in­creased 10fold. To­day, NIH’s bud­get is just over $30 bil­lion.

With the coun­try go­ing broke, it is hardly a good time to brag about fed­eral spend­ing on any­thing. But is it hard to think of a much bet­ter way to in­vest tax dol­lars than in find­ing cures for the sick and ways to keep Amer­ica health­ier.

Specter started his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer as a Demo­crat and ended on the same side of the aisle. In be­tween he was a Repub­li­can who com­manded the at­ten­tion of both sides for his will­ing­ness to buck his own party to do what he thought was in the na­tion’s in­ter­est, not to men­tion his own.

He was best known for four things: His sin­gle bul­let the­ory in the JFh as­sas­si­na­tion; his “bork­ing” of Supreme Court nom­i­nee Robert Bork; his grilling of Anita Hill in the Clarence Thomas con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings; and his cit­ing of Scot­tish law for his non­vote in the im­peach­ment trial of Wil­liam Jef­fer­son Clin­ton.

These ac­tions came decades apart, but all of them re­vealed a man who was icon­o­clas­tic, cere­bral and brave.

Some would dis­agree. There were many who saw Specter’s ac­tions mostly as at­ten­tion-get­ting po­lit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions. They saw a man who al­ways had his eye on the next elec­tion and made sure he was prop­erly po­si­tioned to win it.

Late in his ca­reer (2004), he had a very close call against a GOP in­sur­gent named Pat Toomey. He sur­vived it. But Toomey came back to haunt him six years later. To avoid an­other tough pri­mary against Toomey, Specter jumped par­ties. He was un­lucky enough to find an­other am­bi­tious of­fice seeker wait­ing for him in the Demo­cratic pri­mary.

Af­ter los­ing to Joe Ses­tak (who went on to lose to Pat Toomey) Specter took up the hobby of per­form­ing as a stand-up comedian

He was no Jerry Se­in­feld but he ob­vi­ously en­joyed him­self on stage and so did his au­di­ences. And un­like the fa­mous politi­cians who ap­pear at the an­nual Correspondents Din­ner in Wash­ing­ton ev­ery year, Specter wrote his own jokes.

(Our fa­vorite: “I called Clin­ton up on his 65th birthday and said, ‘Bill, con­grat­u­la­tions on be­ing 65. How do you feel?’ He said, ‘Oh, I feel like a teenager, the prob­lem is I can’t find one.’”)

He was the con­sum­mate po­lit­i­cal pro; a crea­ture of the Belt­way who never lost his hansas drawl. Or his sense of hu­mor. He was an Amer­i­can and po­lit­i­cal orig­i­nal. Dead at 82. He has gone, we’re sure, to a less con­tentious and more peace­ful place.

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