“My Way”

Pall bearers steadily moved the flag-draped coffin carrying the body of Senator Arlen Specter through massive Har Zion Temple, and as they took their small, halting steps, Frank Sinatra’s large anthem of a full life, “My Way,” played to the 15 hundred people who had gathered to recall a “great statesman” and a remarkable man.Image

Friends, family and dignitaries gathered today in Penn Valley:  Vice-President Joe Biden, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, past and current U.S. Senators, elected officials from throughout the region, the Deputy Israeli Ambassador and more. The nearly two hours of reflection was at times humorous, at times tearful, but always as the Senator might have liked, moving forward.  It was also at times presented as if attorneys were making the case for a man’s greatness.  If it were a debate, they would have won it.

The Vice-President canceled campaign appearances in western swing states today to be here to say goodbye to his friend. He began his remarks with, “My name is Joe Biden. I was Arlen’s friend.”  He was in full Biden seriousness and in full Biden humor. It was no doubt like the train rides the two of them shared. Joe Biden said of his friend, “Arlen had exceptional character,” and that he had “never seen a man with as much undaunted courage.”

Former Governor Ed Rendell, who was hired by District Attorney Arlen Specter,  said ”We were proud of you…We will always be proud of you.” Rendell’s voice broke a couple of times as he praised his mentor and colleague.

Longtime friends of Arlen Specter remembered his early days and the personal side of the very public figure. Words such as “true grit,” “will,” and “integrity” filled the eulogies.  Arlen lived, “A productive and meaningful life.”  “He wasn’t afraid to fail.”

Tribute was paid to widow Joan Specter.  Granddaughters spoke, too. Said Sylvie of her grandfather, “He worked tirelessly to be the best grandfather ever, and he succeeded.”  Specter’s son, Shanin, summed up the afternoon’s recollections and expanded on his father’s love of the fight for fairness and of standing by friends in trouble, regardless of political consequences.  Said Shanin, “He was “the patron saint of lost causes.”

The above were among the public statements I heard, but before the service began I spoke with people from various walks of life, all who genuinely are pained by the loss of a man who made a difference. Among them, those with a stake in the fight against cancer, community leaders, as well as public figures indebted to his leadership. Pall bearer and Congressman, Pat Meehan, for example, who wore the loss on his face.

Arlen Specter did not plan this final  service. As he told his family, “surprise me.”  But as Sinatra filled the quiet of the Temple, it felt, after 82 years on earth, 59 years of marriage, kids and grandkids, students and colleagues, wins and losses, causes, quests, and even windmills, it felt right to say that Arlen Specter did do it his way.

Sestak v. Specter Final Hours

In the final hours of the Pennsylvania Democratic Primary campaign, I spoke with Joe Sestak and Arlen Specter on this Sunday’s “NBC10 at Issue.”  I asked Congressman Sestak what being a Democrat means to him.  Sestak answered, “That working families have a chance. That those who are unemployed have someone in Washington who will be a warrior for them. Washington is broken.”

Sestak went on to criticize Arlen Specter about Specter’s switch last year from the Republican Party.  However, Sestak says his own references to “a new generation” have nothing to do with Specter’s age but rather that Specter has been “down there for 30 years advancing a Republican agenda.”  As for Specter’s attack ads targeting Sestak on campaign pay issues , missed votes and his Navy career, Joe Sestak said, “These ads of his say more about Arlen than about anyone else.”  Both men disagree on whether Sestak’s ad in which Specter is seen saying he switched parties to be re-elected is fair. The quote is accurate, but Specter supporters believe the sentence that follows explains that Specter’s motivation is not selfish.  Sestak supporters see it differently.

I asked Arlen Specter which Specter we would get in the next 6 years, the one who supported tax cuts under George Bush, the one who backed the Iraq War, voted for Justices Scalia and Thomas and voted against Elena Kagan, or the Specter who voted for the stimulus, is pro-choice and who now says he is considering Elena Kagan?  Senator Specter responded, “I changed parties to save my job so that I could continue to serve in the United States Senate to save jobs of Pennsylvanians and Americans.”  He says his stimulus vote was “an act of political principle and some say, courage.”  As for voting for the clearly conservative Scalia and Thomas, Specter answered, “Well listen, you make your best judgment you can at the time.”

Senator Specter tells me that a few days ago he had a “forthcoming meeting” with President Obama’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan and that he is “not going to make a knee-jerk reaction” for or against her now even though he voted against her last year for Solicitor.  Congressman Sestak has already come out firmly in favor of Kagan and says Specter is now “back-pedaling.”  Specter says he voted against her because she did not answer questions he felt should have been answered.

I asked Specter about his personal vote for John McCain for President, which if successful, would have made possible the Presidency of Sarah Palin. I asked if that was sound Democratic judgment. His response: “Well, Sarah Palin’s selection by John McCain was questioned by many including Arlen Specter.” In March of last year, about 5 or 6 weeks before he switched to the Democratic Party, in a quote in an article  by”The Hill”, Specter indicated that having 41 Republican Senators was good so that Democrats did not have the 60 vote super majority.  I asked him about that statement.  His response, “Well, I believe that the Republicans have gone too far.”   

As for Specter’s insistence that Sestak release his Navy records, Sestak says he will not as a matter of principle.  Sestak served 31 years in the U.S. Navy, rising to the rank of 3-Star Admiral.  He retired as a 2-Star because he did not serve enough time as a 3-Star to be able to retire at that rank.

As for which can better take on likely Republican nominee Pat Toomey, Joe Sestak says he is the one who can better beat Toomey. Says Sestak, “People know on the Republican side he (Specter) betrayed them, independents know he would be a flight risk and more than anything else people today want someone who is independent minded.”   Arlen Specter said, “I beat him (Toomey) before and I can beat him again he’s tough” and that in a town meeting on health care last year he listened to “tea party gang” criticism. Said Specter, “I took on the guy with fists clenched”(the angry citizen’s fists).   

This is a race that will be decided by which candidate Democrats think is the more reliable or truer Democrat, whether Democrats who have voted against Specter for years can themselves make the switch, whether Sestak’s candidacy inspires voters as they were in 2008, also by which candidate Democrats think can win in the fall, whether ads defined the other better, as well as how anti-incumbency plays and the success or failure of turnout efforts that target communities leaning toward one candidate or another.