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Arlen Specter: "One Tough Hombre"

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 This past Sunday, former Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter passed away at the age of 82. He was the longest-serving senator in that state's history. The following essay is based mostly on his entry in my 2010 book "The Jews of Capitol Hill: A Compendium of Jewish Members of Congress." (Rowman & Littlefield)



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Over the course of a 45-year political career -- in which he went from Democrat to Republican and then, after nearly 30 years in the United States Senate back to Democrat -- people described Arlen Specter in a lot of different ways :

  • "A dangerous wildcard"
  • "A loner"
  • "A penchant for shallow publicity"
  • "Abrasive"
  • "Aggressive"
  • "An unrepentant creedal heretic"
  • "Arrogant"
  • "Blunt"
  • "Brilliant"
  • "Brilliantly perceptive"
  • "Brutal"
  • "Contrarian"
  • "Highly respected"
  • "Indefatigable"
  • "Persuasive"
  • "Prosecutorial"
  • "Quixotic"
  • "Tenacious"
  • "Well prepared" and simply,
  • "One tough hombre"

President Barack Obama made the "one tough hombre" comment at his April 29, 2009 press conference in the White House Diplomatic Reception Room upon welcoming Senator Specter into the Democratic Party. The president showed a keen understanding of the Pennsylvania senator's political history declaring, "I don't expect Arlen to be a rubber stamp. . ."

Arlen Specter spent a lifetime being anything but a "rubber stamp" -- whether it be in his hometown, his adopted state, or the United States Senate. Although he lived for nearly six decades in Philadelphia, till the very end one could still hear the unmistakable flat Midwestern tone of his native Kansas. A longtime moderate Republican during an era when the

Arlen Specter: 1930-2012
GOP became increasingly more conservative in outlook, he remained unabashedly liberal in matters of social policy. Although decidedly pro"'choice and in favor of stem-cell research he was anathema to most politically active women.

Harry Specter, Arlen Specter's father, was born in 1892 in Batchkurina, a village about 160 miles from Kiev. The Specters -- Harry, his parents, his seven brothers and one sister -- were the only Jewish family in Batchkurina, "a convenient target for the villagers' slurs and the Cossacks' sport." In 1910 at age 18, Harry walked "across the entire European continent, alone, uneducated, and destitute" to sail to America, where his brother Joseph lived in New York City. Meeting up with Joe, the brothers soon moved to Philadelphia, where Harry worked for a tailor and eventually was able to purchase a Model-T, in which he traveled West "to learn English and see America."

Senator Arlen Specter found his father's village on a 1982 trip to the Soviet Union. None of the villagers, including the mayor, said they had heard of the Specter family. Even the oldest person in the village had no knowledge until, as the senator would later write, "It dawned on me to tell him that my father's family had been the only Jewish family in the village. The man looked up and said, "Oh! Avram the Jew.' Avram was my grandfather's name, but I had not mentioned it. That's what it was like being a Jew in Russia. My grandfather had died in the famine of 1922, sixty years earlier, but this man still remembered Avram the Jew."

In 1916, Harry Specter found himself in St. Joseph, Missouri, where he met a shopkeeper named Freida Shanin. Harry began keeping company with Freida's eldest daughter, 16-year old Lillie. They soon became engaged. Following military service with the 355th Infantry Company in France (in which he was wounded), Harry and Lillie were married. They would have four children: Morton (born 1920 in St. Joseph), Hilda (born 1921 in Philadelphia), Shirley (born 1927 in St. Joseph) and Arlen, who was born on February 12, 1930 in Wichita. Part of the reason for their moving around was in the nature of how Harry made his living: "He drove a truck in the Scranton coal fields, sold blankets to farmers in the winter in Nebraska, and peddled cantaloupes door-to-door in small Midwestern towns in the summer."

In his 2000 autobiography A Passion for Truth: From Finding JFK's Single Bullet to Questioning Anita Hill to Impeaching Clinton, Specter noted that at his birth, his parents announced that they were going to name him "Abraham" after Lillie's paternal grandfather "Avram." Lillie's sister Rose -- who was living in Wichita at the time -- protested, "Oh, you're not going to do that to this poor little baby." She then suggested they name him "Arlen" after Richard Arlen, her favorite movie star. As a child, Arlen's nickname was "Boozy Boy." As the senator explained in his autobiography, "A close family friend had given his son . . . born sixteen months before me the nickname "Sonny Boy' after the Al Jolson song of that title, and my father adopted the variation "Boozy Boy' for me."

Shortly after the birth of their fourth child, the Specter family moved to Russell, Kansas, the same tiny farming community in which future senator -- and 1996 Republican presidential nominee Robert Dole was born and raised. When Arlen was age 4, Harry took him to meet the Wichita sheriff, "who asked me what I would like to see or do in his office. I replied I'd like to hold the pistol I saw in his holster. No, he said, but he would make me a deputy sheriff, and he pinned his badge to my overalls for a picture. My proud father sent the photo to "Ripley's Believe It or Not.' On June 18, 1934, Ripley's carried my picture with the caption that I was the youngest deputy sheriff in history. Over the years I saw my father take that clipping from his wallet again and again to proudly show it to his friends, until it literally disintegrated in his hands from the folding and handling."

Following his high school graduation in 1947, Arlen Specter entered the University of Oklahoma, because "there were no Jewish fraternities at the University of Kansas." He joined Pi Lamda Phi. However, in the Spring of 1948 Specter writes, "we Pi Lams were reminded we were Jewish when a huge swastika was painted on our front sidewalk." In the Fall of that year he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania; his decision was made even easier, because his family was now living in Philadelphia. While at a dance during his sophomore year at Penn, Specter met a local high school student named Joan Lois Levy; they were married in 1953. Joan has had a varied career. According to a 1998 White House press release at the time of her appointment to the National Council on the Arts:

Ms. Joan Specter, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has balanced successful careers in both business and public service. Initially, she founded three cooking schools, became a Food Columnist and Radio Consumer Reporter. She then started and built a wholesale frozen pie company, with distributors in thirty states that supplied pies to a major restaurant chain. Ms. Specter also served as Philadelphia City Councilwoman At-Large for sixteen years. While with the City Council, she was on the Finance Committee, initiated a major program on "Art In City Hall", and was a major supporter of turning South Broad Street into the "Avenue of the Arts". Ms. Specter was also deeply involved in community health and education issues. Ms. Specter serves on the boards of the Jefferson Bank, Chestnut Hill College, and the Medical College of Pennsylvania. She is a former member of the Philadelphia Cultural Fund and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

The Specters would have two sons: Shanin and Steven. Shanin, who was born in 1957, is a highly regarded malpractice attorney with the Philadelphia firm Kline and Specter. Steve , born in 1960, has both an M.D. and a Ph.D. in nutrition. At his death, Specter had granddaughters: Hatti, Lilli, Perri and Silvi.

Arlen Specter graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, Phi Beta Kappa in 1951; he wrote his senior thesis on U.S.-Soviet relations. He then spent the next two years (1951-53) in the United States Air Force. Returning from military service, he attended Yale Law School, where he edited the law journal. Graduating with his LL.B. in 1956, he moved back to Philadelphia, where he spent three years in private practice with Barnes, Dechert, Price, Myers and Rhoads, a top firm. In 1959, he was appointed an assistant in the office of the Democratic District Attorney, Victor Hugo Blanc. At his initial interview, Blanc's assistant wanted to know "why a guy who had been Phi Beta Kappa at Penn and had helped edit the law journal at Yale wanted to leave a top firm and become an assistant DA. My academic background was a rarity at the Philadelphia DA's office." All he could do was explain that he felt the call to public service. During his four years in the DA's office, he made a name for himself as a tough prosecutor, winning numerous convictions against corrupt Teamsters Union officials. On March 1, 1961, D.A. Vic Blanc was elevated to the bench and replaced with James C. Crumlish.

Following the Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963, Specter resigned from the district attorney's office and moved to Washington, D.C., in order to take a position as an assistant counsel to the Warren Commission, the fact"'finding body charged with investigating the president's murder. When the Commission concluded that a single bullet had killed President Kennedy and wounded Texas Governor John Connally, Specter suddenly found himself the subject of both celebrity and notoriety. He had been the "chief architect and staunch defender of the commission's . . . so"'called single bullet theory." Interviewed by U.S. News & World Report, Specter said, "the evidence is overwhelming that Lee Harvey Oswald was the assassin of President Kennedy." Specter's role in the Warren Commission investigation was immortalized in filmmaker Oliver Stone's blockbuster movie Kennedy. In that film, Stone identified Specter by name and called him a liar in reference to the "Single Bullet Conclusion." Specter came close to suing Stone for libel. After consulting "an ace Philadelphia litigator" about suing Stone, Specter decided against it. "The trial," he explained in 2000, "would have involved the whole Warren Commission story, which would have been fine with me. But I had too much on my plate at the time . . . . Besides, I didn't need a movie company. In the end I let it go."

Following his stint with the Warren Commission, Specter returned to Philadelphia, where he sought the Democratic nomination for district attorney. Rebuffed by the Democratic machine that had controlled Philadelphia politics for a generation or more, Specter accepted the Republicans' offer to become their candidate for the office. Running as a reform candidate with the backing of both the liberal Americans for Democratic Action and moderate Republicans like Governor William W. Scranton (1917- ) and Senator Hugh Scott (1900-1994), Specter pulled off an upset victory over his former boss James C. Crumlish (1920-1972). With his better than 36,000-vote victory, Specter became the first Republican to capture a citywide Philadelphia election in more than a dozen years. What made his victory all the more remarkable was that throughout the campaign, Arlen Specter was saying kaddish thrice daily for his father, who had suddenly passed away while he and Lillie were visiting Israel. He was 73. Receiving a call at 5:30 A.M. on Monday, November 2, Arlen and his sister Hilda were in Israel for their father's funeral within 24 hours. Harry Specter was buried in the Holon Cemetery. Lillie returned with her children to the United States and settled with Shirley and her family in Phoenix. Diagnosed with stomach cancer in her early seventies, she underwent a "painful but potentially lifesaving operation," from which she made "a reasonable recovery." She then moved with Shirley and her family to Elizabeth, New Jersey, where she passed away in 1974 at age 73. She is buried in the Specter family plot in "a suburban Philadelphia Jewish cemetery," thousands and thousands of miles away from Harry, to whom she had been married for 45 years.

Arlen Specter would spend eight years as district attorney, overseeing more than 250,000 cases. He was a different kind of D.A. than the people of Philadelphia were accustomed to; he was truculent, pugnacious, and unafraid to take on anyone and everyone from the mayor to the police commissioner. Following his first year in office, he ran for mayor, losing to incumbent, James H. Tate by just 10,954 votes out of some 700,000 cast. It was the city's closest mayoral contest in more than thirty years. In looking back on that race, Specter would conclude that he lost because "they (i.e. the people of Philadelphia) wanted me to remain their district attorney." Interestingly, Specter believed he lost some of the Jewish vote from people "who worried that any shortcomings on my part would tar Jews at large."

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Kurt Stone is a rabbi, writer, lecturer, political activist, professor, actor, and medical ethicist. A true "Hollywood brat" (born and raised in the film industry), Kurt was educated at the University of California, the Eagleton Institute of (more...)
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