It was 25 years ago, on June 14, 1993, that Pennsylvania’s political world held its breath.
In surgical suites at opposites ends of the state, its two most prominent members, Gov. Bob Casey and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, underwent life-threatening surgery.
Casey, then 61, suffering from amyloidosis, a genetic disease, had a 13-hour heart-liver transplant at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Specter, then 63, had 2½-hour brain surgery at Penn for removal of a tumor.
Both survived. Both returned to their offices. And, if you knew them, you weren’t surprised. But the day was unique, and worth remembering.
For one thing, what are the odds these guys end up in serious surgery on the same day? Flag Day, no less. And Arlen’s wedding anniversary.
(I once wrote that Specter was so political he married on Flag Day to show his patriotism; just like he managed to be born on February 12, Lincoln’s birthday.)
Casey and Specter were giants of Pennsylvania’s political landscape. Yet neither was born here: Casey, New York; Specter, Kansas.
And while their paths to success were different, they came up together, lost big elections before they won them and shared traits setting them apart in their parties.
Both were tough, independent thinkers: Casey a right-leaning, anti-abortion Democrat; Specter a left-leaning, pro-choice Republican.
What I remember from that day was a descriptive simile: A doctor said that when Casey’s heart was removed it was “as hard as a telephone.”
Also — since politics, and those who write about it, tend toward ruthless dark humor – jokes that Specter couldn’t stand seeing Casey get all the attention, and lots of talk about lines of succession in case one or both men never woke up.
For example, in worst case, Casey would be replaced by then-Lt. Gov. Mark Singel, who then would get to name a replacement for Specter.
And you can imagine the short- and long-term angling that would (and did) ensue.
But, for less crass memories, let’s turn to family members.
Arlen’s son, Philly lawyer Shanin Specter, recalls that within hours after surgery, while his father still was in recovery, President Bill Clinton called, “which my father found to be very annoying, which gave me great confidence he was going to be fine.”
Another clue to quick recovery came that July 7.
After being stuck at home for weeks, Arlen wanted to go to a Phillies game for at least a few innings. Remember, it was `93, a year the Phils won the pennant.
The plan was to stay three or four innings but the game was close, and Arlen didn’t want to leave. It was tied in the ninth. He still wanted to stay. And they did. Until the Phils beat the Dodgers, 7-6 – in the bottom of the 20th at 1:45 a.m.
“I was most concerned what my mother would say,” says Specter, “and made sure on the way home that my father would take full responsibility.”
Casey’s surgery was far more involved, virtually experimental. His recovery took much longer. For Sen. Bob Casey, two poignant memories are uppermost.
A few hours before surgery, about 3 a.m., the governor’s family – wife Ellen and eight children — gathered around his hospital bed. “He was in a good mood,” says the senator. “He had to be scared but he didn’t express it.”
The second memory is from six months later when Gov. Casey made an emotional return to the Capitol to serve out his second term.
He spoke of his family surrounding him prior to surgery. He said they talked and laughed. He added, “Believe me, when I went into that operating room I was on eagles’ wings.”
Sen. Casey says the comeback never was a question: “And it probably helped that some folks in Harrisburg doubted that he would…he was just a tiny bit competitive.”
Casey and Specter had a good relationship dating back to the 1970’s when Casey was state auditor general and Specter was Philly DA.
“They knew each other pretty well,” says Casey. And since both endured multiple electoral defeats, they shared “the mutual respect of gladiators.”
Casey finished his second term. He died in 2000 at 68. Specter kept going, through further health issues and more brain surgery. He lost his Senate seat in 2010 after switching parties. He died in 2012 at 82.
They were titans of their time. They were unique. Just like the day they both went under the knife.