A profile of U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter

Sen. Arlen Specter listens to an unidentified man as he voices his concerns during a town hall meeting Aug. 11, 2009 in Lebanon, Pa. ( Tom Gralish/ Staff Photographer )

All Sen. Arlen Specter wants as he sits down at the Vietnam Georgetown Restaurant after a bruising day of fighting for survival is a gin martini, with olives. How hard is that?

"Bartender is not here tonight. No mixed drinks - beer, wine only," the young waiter says, tapping a pencil on his order pad.

"No bartender?" Specter says. "How about a manager?"

The kid shakes his head. "Well, how about straight gin on ice? Can you do that?" Specter asks, sighing. The waiter is puzzled. "Straight gin," Specter repeats, exasperated now. Ah, the kid realizes, this customer is not going to take no for an answer.

"It's ridiculous, not having a bartender. What's this?" Specter grumbles as the waiter darts off to fetch the gin. "I guess I'll have to go home and make my own martinis." Rrrr.

On this evening last spring, Specter, 79, was under siege. Not long before, he had been one of three Republican senators whose votes had enacted President Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus, and the blowback was fierce. To the GOP base, that program was the very worst in bloated government spending, something that, piled atop all the bank bailouts, would just drive up the deficit and expand government's control of the economy.

Specter was branded a traitor, a weasel - and not for the first time. It seemed that all the years of compromises and deals, of taking the middle path, had caught up to him. The Republican State Committee at its winter meeting considered a censure resolution. People picketed his Allentown office. A conservative former U.S. representative, Pat Toomey, prepared to abandon his exploratory campaign for governor of Pennsylvania to take another shot at Specter. Toomey had come within 17,000 votes (out of more than one million cast) of ending Specter's Senate career in the 2004 Republican primary. Citing polls, firebrands urged Toomey to finish the job.

Specter was treated on cable news and in newspapers like some exotic zoo animal - the endangered moderate Republican. Now that he had stepped on the stimulus mine, other tricky votes were coming up, on union rights and health care, for instance. Conventional wisdom held that he was toast. Maybe he would finally jump to the Democrats?

No, Specter insisted, never.

Yet weeks later, that's exactly what he did.


His bruising ballet

During the next seven months, Specter would dance to salvage all he had built over a lifetime, the power to nudge federal law toward his vision of precision, to endow lifesaving biomedical research nationwide, and to bring federal projects to his state.

The public ballet would spotlight character traits that have made Specter such a towering figure over five decades: grit, boldness (and its twin, opportunism), abrasiveness, intellect, a fierce love of verbal combat.

It may be his hardest act yet, but if one characteristic defines Specter's career and life, it is this: Nothing comes easy. Indeed, after he became a Democrat in April to avoid one primary challenge from the right, he found another threat on his left in the pesky form of Rep. Joe Sestak, who hammers Specter as an insincere Democrat and implies he is too old.

Specter has served in the Senate longer than anyone in Pennsylvania history, a milestone that would have seemed laughable when he was losing races for district attorney of Philadelphia, mayor, governor, and U.S. Senate. In 1980, he butted his head against the wall again and eked out a win by 2 percentage points. His secret weapon: visiting every wide spot in the road in all 67 counties, pushing, pushing, pushing.

And he has survived illnesses that might have daunted a less determined man: two bouts of Hodgkin's lymphoma and the brutal chemotherapy that knocked down the disease, open-heart surgery, a benign brain tumor.

At dinner, Specter eats a forkful of salmon, then gulps a glass of water.

"You bite into one of those peppercorns," he says, "you're in trouble."


Hard to fathom

It seems we have always known him and yet we do not really know him at all.

Arlen Specter has been around so long, influenced so much of the modern history of Philadelphia and the nation, that his image is imprinted on miles of videotape, hundreds of thousands of yellowing newspaper clippings, and two volumes of autobiography.

Who he is underneath he keeps to himself.

Jowly, his face like a basset hound's, Specter is not a natural politician. His public smile is tight, as if willed into place. He often seems in a hurry to get somewhere else. And even after a lifetime away, he retains the barbed-wire prairie accent of his Kansas boyhood.

Specter loves to tell stories, his favorite ones polished smooth as riverbed stones, and he's wickedly funny. Just don't ask him to disclose his feelings, discuss motivations, or analyze his career.

He professes to be unconcerned with how history will categorize him.

"I just do it," Specter said. "That's all yesterday. I've got to figure out the future."

Joan Specter, his wife of 54 years, said he doesn't spend time rehashing the past.

"I'll say, 'What a great life we've had,' " she said, "and he always says, 'No, it's what a great life we are having.' That sums him up. It's always about today and tomorrow."


A man of pragmatism

In this politically polarized time, Specter does not have a set of core ideological principles to rule his actions, friends say. He consumes facts, analyzes an issue, then makes a call and moves on. His philosophy boils down to: Do good. Government sometimes needs to step in to help people help themselves.

For years, he's said he went to Washington to help his Russian immigrant father, a World War I veteran, get the $500 bonus the government promised doughboys and never paid.

On social issues, Specter has been steadfast in his support of abortion rights, gay rights, and funding for stem-cell research, clashing with the GOP's religious conservatives; he stands on more congenial ground as a Democrat.

Alongside the impulse to do good, Specter has a knack for calculation and opportunism. Enemies grumble that he lacks conviction, while defenders say his sense of realpolitik makes him effective.

At heart, he is an advocate, reflecting his training as a lawyer and early career as a prosecutor. He reveres the Constitution and sees his function as making sure that things are done the right way, the fair way, that the system works. He can come off as pedantic, but process is important to him; it guards rights.

He stood by former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R., Miss.), who lost his post after praising Sen. Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist presidential run. Lott is no racist, Specter said; he'd merely made an overly generous toast at Thurmond's 100th birthday party.

Two years ago, Specter defended then-Sen. Larry Craig, the Idaho Republican charged with soliciting gay sex in an airport restroom. While late-night comics blasted Craig, Specter believed he'd been entrapped, and counseled him on his rights.

"He is the patron saint of lost causes," said Specter's son Shanin, a Philadelphia trial lawyer and the senator's chief strategist. "He relates to people that have been victims of persecution and criticism."

Now a lobbyist, Craig declined to revisit the case. "Arlen," he said simply, "is a special person to me."

In 1991, Specter's zealous advocacy was almost fatal to his career. That was when he interrogated Anita Hill, the Oklahoma law professor who had accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Specter felt he owed it to Thomas, his party, and the court to test her story.

He seemed dispassionate as he probed inconsistencies between Hill's lurid Senate testimony - that Thomas had discussed with her pornography, the size of his genitals, and "pubic hair on my Coke" - and her earlier sworn statement to the FBI.

Hill was just as calm, insisting that Thomas had created a hostile working environment.

If Thomas was such a pig, Specter demanded, why had Hill continued to work for him, and kept up social contact for years after? "When you say you wanted to maintain a cordial professional relationship, why would you do that? . . . Was it simply a matter that you wanted to derive whatever advantage you could?"

Specter had no doubt that Hill was guilty of "flat-out perjury," but millions of people, especially women, saw Specter as a lout and a bully.

The reaction stunned him. "I really felt sort of betrayed," he told the Washington Post. "I'm doing a job fairly and properly, and they're responding like this."

The next year, feminist leader Lynn Yeakel challenged him in the general election, and even though she had no political experience, Specter beat her only narrowly.

A longtime member of the Judiciary Committee (and its chairman from 2005 to 2007), Specter has worked deep in the weeds of the law. He has written dozens of federal statutes and has helped shape the Supreme Court and courts at the appellate and federal district levels.

Conservatives still loathe him for killing the 1987 Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert Bork (too narrow on civil rights, Specter thought), yet both the left and the right credit his hearings four years ago on John Roberts and Samuel Alito as fair.

Specter is a master of the inside game. Since 1996, he has pushed the yearly research budget for the National Institutes of Health from $12 billion to $30 billion. He secured $10 billion from Obama's stimulus package for NIH scientists.

Specter has also wrested billions over the years for Pennsylvania projects. Signs of his work are scattered from the west to the east.

The Mon-Fayette Expressway, a vital link to southwest Pennsylvania, was built in part with $20 million Specter has won since 1998.

In central Pennsylvania, he won $28 million for flood walls and levees along the Susquehanna River in Bloomsburg, which has suffered regular floods since 1901.

Last year, Specter garnered $5.5 million for a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of a cluster of rare blood cancers in McAdoo in Schuylkill County.

Closer to home, Specter was instrumental in establishing the national veterans cemetery under construction in Bucks County.

"He knows how the system works," said lawyer Stephen J. Harmelin, a friend of four decades. Specter thinks "he can make more of a difference than any of the people running against him."

He made his mark on the nation's history long before reaching the Senate. Amid fear and hysteria after President John F. Kennedy's assassination, Specter, as a young staff attorney with the Warren Commission, originated the Single Bullet Theory:

One copper-jacketed bullet, he maintained, pierced JFK's neck, nicking the knot of his tie; burrowed into Texas Gov. John Connally's back; came out through his abdomen with a yaw in its path; then stung the governor's right wrist and lodged in his left thigh. The theory is crucial to pinning the murder on a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald.

The explanation has never been refuted, and computer programs since have shown such a trajectory was possible. Yet its complexity brings Specter ridicule to this day.

"The truth is stranger than fiction," he said.

Politically, Specter fought for moderation in the Republican Party until surrendering last year. In 1995, he even sought the GOP presidential nomination for just such a purpose. He attacked the Christian right as a "fringe" and argued that the party could prosper only if it dropped demands for ideological purity. He flamed out fast.

"He never had any illusions about being nominated. It was about inclusion and tolerance, and his obstinance that there has to be room for moderates in the Republican Party," said GOP strategist Roger Stone, who worked on the senator's presidential campaign. "He'd get booed wherever he went. He's got the biggest balls of any politician I've ever met."


Unafraid to change

"I don't think Lee Harvey Oswald had this big a crowd trailing him," Specter joked April 28 as reporters engulfed him in the U.S. Capitol.

Few had thought the longtime Republican would change parties. Even some staffers were caught unaware.

On the Sunday before he jumped, Specter discussed his options one more time with his wife, Joan; their son and daughter-in-law, Shanin and Tracey; and their granddaughter Silvi, 15. "They were more definite than I," Specter said. "I don't like to give up the fight. It has to be as bleak as this one was to lead me to do it."

Specter did not try to ennoble his motivation with rhetoric. He said he could not win reelection as a Republican; his approval rating in the party had dropped by half since the stimulus vote.

But the switch fueled a perception that has plagued his career: that he is all about Arlen, willing to pay any price, bear any burden, to hang on to power.

That knock was present at the creation. An assistant prosecutor and a Democrat, Specter ran for district attorney as a Republican in 1965 because the party bosses would not endorse him. He won.

Even as he announced his new party affiliation last spring, Specter growled that he would not be an "automatic 60th vote" for the Democrats in the Senate. "I will not hesitate to disagree."

After all, he had criticized President George W. Bush's policy on the detention of terrorism suspects and "enhanced interrogation techniques." But he also had voted for Bush's tax cuts, the Iraq war, and John McCain and Sarah Palin in 2008. Those choices are hard to explain now. Specter doesn't really try. What can he say?

There have been other shifts.

On NBC's Meet the Press May 3, Specter said he would not vote for a government-run health-insurance program, a priority of Obama's reform plan. Now Specter is a fierce proponent of a government-run plan.

In late October, he urged colleagues to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, a law Specter voted for in 1996.

"The Act is a relic of a more tradition-bound time and culture," Specter wrote on the Huffington Post, comparing it to Prohibition, in that both failed to regulate personal behavior.

His reputation as an opportunist bugs Specter. After all, politicians who don't survive cannot accomplish anything.

"You don't get to the Senate unless you are good at calculus," Specter said. He cited a favorite maxim from Philadelphia defense lawyer Morton Witkin. "Witkin said, 'The higher the monkey climbs the flagpole, the more the monkey's ass is showing.' " In other words, "If you don't do anything, nobody criticizes you."

Specter prefers to do things.


Growing up in Kansas

Specter grew up in Depression-era Kansas, a stoic era in a stoic place, the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant. After immigrating, Harry Specter worked in a sweatshop in Philadelphia, bought a Model-T, and drove west. He fell in love with Arlen's mother in St. Joseph, Mo., and wound his way to Kansas.

Harry Specter would take the backseat out of the family's Plymouth sedan and load it with cantaloupes from a farmer's market in Wichita, where the family lived. Young Arlen and his older sister, Shirley, rode along as their father peddled door to door in small towns. A quarter bought three large cantaloupes or six small ones. Often, the constable chased them out of town after local grocers, Specter said, got mad at the Jew's undercutting their prices.

"It was hard times, very hard," said Specter's sister, Shirley Specter Kety, 82. "People did whatever they had to do."

The family moved to Russell, Kan., in 1942 when Arlen was 12. Harry Specter bought a junkyard, and the boy worked cutting down oil derricks and pipelines for scrap.

Kety remembers how proud their father was to own some land and a business, options closed to Jews in Russia. "He knew how lucky we were to be Americans, and we absorbed that from him," she said.

But young Arlen also felt apart as a member of the only Jewish family in town. "I didn't get beat up because I fought back," Specter said. "There was anti-Semitism bubbling up beneath the surface."

Now he views the experience as inspiring his passion for civil rights. But didn't it make him angry?

"Yeah," Specter said. "Still does."

When it was time for college, Specter wanted to go to the University of Kansas, but fraternities in Lawrence did not admit Jews, so he enrolled at the University of Oklahoma.

Years later, when a high-ranking KU official called on him in Washington, Specter told the woman how her university had lost a potential student in 1947. "She squirmed a little," he said.

After a year in Norman, Okla., Specter transferred to the University of Pennsylvania. The whole family moved to a rowhouse at 1213 Stirling St. in Oxford Circle so Specter's sister might find a suitable Jewish man to marry. (In 1952 she wed Edwin Kety, a physician who died in 1995. She lives in North Jersey, where she avidly follows her brother's career.)

Eleven years after he arrived as a college student, Specter was an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. He has lived in East Falls for four decades, loves the Phillies and Eagles, and calls WIP sports-talk radio during football season. Yo, it's Arlen from East Falls.

By the time the Democratic primary comes in May, Specter will be 80, but friends say they cannot imagine him without the Senate to give him purpose.

"His least favorite state is tranquillity," Harmelin said. "I don't think the concept works in his dictionary. It flips into boredom."

"He's entirely a man in motion. . . . Work is his therapy."


Tough competitor

It's about 6 a.m. in the guardhouse at the Federal Reserve, the police officers chatting, getting ready for the day. Soon Specter's car will roll into the courtyard and then the secure garage for his morning squash game.

"He's tough, the same kind of player as he is a campaigner," says Tom Worral, 40, a Washington lawyer and lobbyist, a Specter squash partner for nine years. "I'd say determined." They joust, the only sounds the squeaking of athletic shoes on the wood, the thwock of the ball against the wall, an occasional grunt. Specter is a silent assassin, working the angles.

He credits the sport with saving his life.

"Each time I go to the squash court I consider it a trip to the health bank," he said. "I've made extensive deposits, and I've also made some very big withdrawals."

These days, he walks more slowly, but said he felt vigorous. He plays squash or lifts weights every day, doing chest presses, lateral pulls, abdominal crunches.

"I'm determined to do everything I can, not to go back to chemotherapy," he said.


Demanding of others

Such a driven man pushes others hard as well. Those who have worked for him describe a brilliant man with no patience for mistakes or tolerance for briefings and memos that fall short of "exactitude." If an aide offers unsolicited advice, Specter is known to snap, "I didn't ask for your opinion."

When he's being driven somewhere, for instance, newspapers must be stacked in order: Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, New York Times, Washington Post (if available). And the papers had "better be virgin," a former aide said. "He knows if someone has read them first."

When he goes on fact-finding trips overseas, Specter demands that State Department diplomats set up squash matches for him.

Douglas Troutman, a former aide, in 1997 described working for Specter as "white-collar boot camp." Specter allowed that "sounded about right."

Another former aide remembered that when he was late picking up Specter at the airport because of construction, the enraged senator said he would drive himself, and demanded that the aide get in the passenger seat.

"He told me I was supposed to anticipate his needs and wants so he didn't have to ask for anything," the former aide said. But often, if they finished early, Specter invited the aide into his house to eat ice cream and watch sports on TV.

"With Specter, I learned to be prepared," the former aide said.

When he was Philadelphia district attorney from 1966 to 1973, Specter held mass case-status meetings, peppering assistant prosecutors with questions. Why'd you do that? Why didn't you think of this line of questioning? Years later, many assistant D.A.s recalled the sheer terror of those encounters, while crediting the drill with making them better trial advocates.

"Arlen will not tolerate anything less than excellence," said Arthur Makadon, the chairman of Ballard Spahr L.L.P., who was Specter's first assistant D.A. in the early 1970s. "I don't find it bad to demand excellence. . . . I learned more in the time I worked for Arlen than I learned in the rest of my life."


Into the maelstrom

Five times in August, Specter shucked his suit jacket, stuck his index cards in his shirt pocket, picked up a microphone, and stepped into a sea of hate. His constituents packed town-hall meetings in Lebanon, Lewisburg, State College, and Kittanning, many of them angry and fearful about Obama's push for a health-care overhaul - and, more broadly, fretting that America was in trouble.

For a total of six hours, the man known as Snarlin' Arlen didn't flinch, didn't blink, and did not appear to sweat. He even won the grudging respect of some antagonists.

"I want to shake your hand," said a disabled veteran in Lebanon. "You've done some for us, and you've done some against us, but I respect you for being who you are."

Something happened in the chemistry of those moments: Arlen Specter became a Democrat. When many in Congress recoiled from the town-hall mayhem, he was out there on national television defending the president.

In the hostile environment, Specter came to own his new position.

One encounter in Lebanon stands out, a distillation of the political moment and Specter's skill. In a college hall, emotions had been running high, when a burly white-haired man interrupted in a high-pitched voice, yelling, "You are trampling on our constitutional rights!"

Others at the gathering started shushing him, to no avail. Specter tried to remember what he'd been saying, but the man approached in a menacing manner. Then another audience member jumped up and shoved the man aside. Police officers began closing in. A full-out brawl seemed imminent.

"Now wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute, WAIT A MINUTE!" Specter said. "He has a right . . ."

"I'm going to speak my mind," the man bellowed.

Specter looked at the man and saw something wild in his eyes. In an instant the senator changed direction. He set his jaw and listened impassively. With his own calm, he began to drain the drama from the scene.

"I got news for you. You and your cronies in the government do this kind of stuff all the time," the man shouted.

Specter just nodded.

The rant continued. "I'm not a lobbyist with all kinds of money to stuff in your pocket so you can cheat the citizens of this country, so I'm going to leave and you can do whatever you please to do. But one day, God is going to stand before you, and he is going to judge you and the rest of your damn cronies up on the Hill. And then you'll get your just deserts."

The words were violent, but Specter's restraint allowed the man to vent until he had talked himself right out of the room.

"OK," said Specter, "we've just had a demonstration of democracy." And he, unlike others who had folded under such pressure, had been brave enough to endure its heat.


Pressing onward

Four months later, a tall woman in a strapless gown rushes to intercept Specter at New York's Waldorf-Astoria. "So they let you out of Washington?" cries U.S. Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, an Erie Democrat. She hugs him hello, and they talk intensely for several minutes.

Orders are down 50 percent at the General Electric locomotive plant in Dahlkemper's district, and workers are losing their jobs. Specter is helping the first-term lawmaker angle for a plant contract for new Amtrak locomotives.

Because of Senate votes, Specter has missed most of the mid-December Pennsylvania Society weekend gathering of the state's political players and business leaders - an essential stop. He has rushed to New York with Joan on Saturday evening to make up for lost time.

Inside the Starlight Roof ballroom, the senator gets club soda - this is work, not martini time - adjusts his hearing aid, and plunges back into the Buchanan Ingersoll holiday reception. Conversations stop as he and Joan approach, and people reach out to touch them. Republicans and Democrats trade memories, wish Specter well, or ask for help. His chief of staff walks behind, taking notes.

The crowd is so thick on the way out that the Specters run late for their next reception. Specter is hustled into an elevator, but notices he has been separated from Joan. "Blondie!" he calls, reaching out to bring her aboard.

As Acela 2211 rolls south to Washington for more Senate votes the next morning, Specter tells stories from his time as district attorney, important cases, sharp lawyering. He says he ordered his prosecutors to stop striking potential jurors on the basis of race before the Supreme Court outlawed it. And, of course, there was the Warren Commission. He loves being on the "firing line," as he calls it.

"You see all the fun I've had? So many historical moments," he says. "I'm not going to stop."

Characteristically, Specter is looking ahead. He wants to pass more money for medical research, to get the long-stalled deepening of the Delaware River under way, to keep his job.

Later in the day, he'll turn around and hop a 5 p.m. train back to New York for a series of fund-raisers. Specter has a stack of train tickets as thick as a deck of cards.

It's a hard road, but Specter wouldn't have it any other way.

"I feel good, and I've got a lot more to do," he says. "I'm very anxious to keep going."


Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.