Remembering Senator Arlen Specter

Senator Arlen Specter lived the U.S. Constitution. Yes, he lived it.  He saw the document as alive and properly adjusting with the times. He saw that as part of its greatness. Maybe it describes his greatness, too.

Mr. Specter lived as a thinking, adjusting public figure. His ground was a sense of fairness, and of need, with a solution reached through reason. He had many critics, but Pennsylvania’s longest serving U.S. Senator will be among the most studied.

Arlen Specter passed away this weekend at the age of 82.  Colleagues and those who admired him are remembering him as courageous, intelligent, a task master, influential and as effective. All true. He was always in the fight. My score count makes him 7 and 5 in elections.  There is a lot of resilience in that ratio.

On toughness, as a reporter I got to see glimpses of the personal courage. After one news conference in which he announced a diagnosis of cancer, he left the microphone with his notes rolled up and as he passed me, he paused and rapped me on the arm and said, “I’m going to beat this.” Another time, in talking about politics and tough times, he said to me, “I’ve got shock absorbers.” In his last interview with me I could see the body failing, but the spirit never wavered.

Arlen Specter, says Senator Bob Casey, “had a brilliant mind.” I think Specter enjoyed finding the path others could not see. As for his positions, he had a keen sense of self-worth but also a desire to find accord among competing factions and that often was the path he discovered or had the courage to embrace.

He will be remembered for the single bullet theory, which he told me is the single bullet “fact.” He will be remembered for being the deciding Stimulus vote, for his criticism of the U.S. Supreme Court (he complained to me that it it is too political) and many other stands and opinions at various crossroads of history. But, at them all he did not cower from controversy. He was there in the room in the very serious game.

He was cerebral, not warm and fuzzy. He enjoyed sports as much as anyone, from his squash games to his belief that the Patriots stole the Super Bowl from the Eagles. He was an observer of people and that often informed his humor.

He was willing to have a give and take with voters. I saw it when I covered his short-lived run for President in 1996 in New Hampshire. Everyone saw it when he was one of the few elected officials to hold real town hall meetings in 2009.

Late in life, as he discussed with me the cannibalism of Washington politics, he bemoaned the debilitating partisanship among elected officials and citizens who failed to see what is derisively referred to now as common ground.

Arlen Specter would have loved the Constitutional Convention of 1787.  Rarely have I met a political figure who would revel as much in the give and take of  ideas, of law, and of the possibilities inherent in a policy or belief.

The National Constitution Center, as the Constitution itself, has many parents, but if there is to be a father of the Constitution Center, it is U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, a man who lived it.