- - Friday, April 13, 2012

By Sen. Arlen Specter with Charles Robbins
St. Martin’s Press, $26.99, 372 pages

If you’re Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, and you’ve been around long enough, Arlen Specter has done something to make you mad. Originally a Democrat, he was elected district attorney in Philadelphia in 1965 as a Republican, supported Richard Nixon as Pennsylvania chairman of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) in 1972 and lost his bid for a third term as district attorney. Rejected by party leaders as a senatorial candidate in 1978, he ran unsuccessfully in the primary for governor.

Then, in 1980, the year of Ronald Reagan, Mr. Specter won the GOP Senate nomination and then the election, mainly, he tells us, through his own efforts. The state bosses hadn’t wanted him to run, and the national party gave him little help. So, beyond the voters, he owed no one.

During his 30 years in the Senate, serving as chairman of the Judiciary and Intelligence committees, he alienated conservatives by torpedoing Judge Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination; then, reversing his field, he infuriated liberals by leading the attack on Anita Hill, thus helping win the Supreme Court seat for Clarence Thomas.

He came to Bill Clinton’s defense during the impeachment hearings and stood by George W. Bush when the media flak was thickest. He includes a letter he wrote to President Bush in 2008, as Mr. Bush’s second term was ending:

“In my judgment, historians will rank your tenure as an outstanding President. No one can deny that the security of the country since September 11, 2001, under your stewardship has been successful. … I have come to know, admire and respect you … your presidency, your private persona up close is so much different from your public persona as portrayed by the news media. … In the historical context, I think of how President Truman was criticized … Now, he is regarded as one of America’s great Presidents.”

As a once and future Democrat, Mr. Specter is a strong believer in bipartisanship. But at times it goes too far. In a chapter titled “Rub-a-dub-dub, Two Men in a Tub,” he describes a meeting in the Senate gym whirlpool with a naked Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, with whom, he tells us, he’d “bonded over opposing Bork’s Supreme Court nomination” and “sponsoring Kennedy’s 1997 hate-crimes legislation, alone among Republicans.”

Mr. Kennedy “came over and climbed into the bath … It was as though a gigantic walrus had plunged into the sea, causing the level to swell. … There was a sign that you had to shower before entering. I hadn’t checked that out with Kennedy, but I had neither an objection nor compunction about his coming into the bath. We chatted.”

Apparently, that awful image is meant to serve as a metaphor for bipartisan cooperation. But fortunately, we don’t see Mr. Kennedy unclothed again. Instead, there are more aesthetically acceptable examples of bipartisanship, as well as compelling discussions of some of the most controversial issues of the past several decades.

As a Republican, Sen. Specter deemed his party wrong on many issues. But then, in 2009, he realized that grass-roots Republicans were increasingly thinking of him in the same way, and he couldn’t win his party’s nomination. And so, again, he switched parties.

His old/new party welcomed him effusively, his switch providing the one vote needed to pass Obamacare in the Senate. Mr. Specter delivered. But President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid didn’t.

According to Mr. Specter, the president had assured him of campaign help in 2010 if he switched, and Mr. Reid had assured him his seniority would be honored. But the president didn’t come through, Mr. Reid fudged on seniority, and Mr. Specter lost his primary. The man many considered the smartest jurist in the Senate had been suckered by a couple of slick politicians.

Interestingly, in advance of the Supreme Court decision on Obamacare, the president and his minions argue that the court can’t meddle with legislation receiving such strong congressional support. But in reality, it just squeaked by in the House, and in the Senate, without Mr. Specter’s party-switching vote, it wouldn’t have passed.

And so, although perhaps not in the way intended, Arlen Specter, very much his own man, has ended his Senate career, for better or worse, by helping once again to shape American political history.

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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