In the only two times I saw Specter speak he lived up to all those descriptions, and then some.
The first came in the late 1990s during a conference of journalists in Pittsburgh. Given an opportunity to ask a question, I asked the senator if he’d had a chance to read Elizabeth Drew’s “The Corruption of American Politics,” a searing indictment of Congress and, among their many sins, politicians’ slavish devotion to campaign cash. “No,” Specter said. However, Specter added with a wry smile, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was leading a furious campaign to clean up dirty money in politics, had read several portions of it to him from the floor of the Senate.
The next occasion was seven years later at a conference of opinion journalists.
Specter’s life bridged many touchstones in the second half of the 20th century. As a young prosecutor in the 1960s, he developed the “magic bullet theory” to explain President Kennedy’s assassination. He nearly lost his Senate seat in the early 1990s thanks to a backlash wave over his treatment of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings. He famously employed an obscure middle-ground option rooted in Scottish law to acquit Bill Clinton during the president’s 1998 impeachment.
On this fall day in 2006, Specter didn’t break any news. That’s not to imply he was boring. His remarks exemplified what he was: a politician out of step with national trends, a moderate Republican from the Northeast. (Specter would eventually switch parties to serve out his last few years in the Senate as a Democrat.)
During the Q&A session, Specter was asked to handicap the Republican field of potential 2008 presidential candidates. Specter, who was known in some quarters as “Snarlin’ Arlen,” took the nice and easy senatorial path. He ticked off the list of candidates, generally offering something positive to say about each one.
One name was missing, however. The senator had omitted Mitt Romney, who in 2006 was rumored to be looking at a run for the White House. Specter was no fan. “The Republican Party has moved so far to the right, you can’t recognize Mitt Romney,” Specter told a TV interviewer earlier this year. “What Mitt Romney will appear in October?”
The next question for Specter came from a journalist from Boston. Sen. Specter, the questioner said, you didn’t say anything about Mitt Romney.
Specter paused a millisecond and then deadpanned, “That’s right, I didn’t.”