Arlen Specter was a party-switcher and political opportunist like no one in living memory.
Life Among the Cannibals: A Political Career, A Tea Party
Uprising, and the End of Governing As We Know It
By Arlen Specter with Charles Robbins
(Thomas Dunne Books, 368 pages, $26.99)
It’s a common problem in today’s economy. Older workers are laid off from their longtime jobs at an age where it is hard to obtain comparable employment but they are still too mentally active to shuffle off to Florida and take in the early bird specials. What to do for a retirement gig?
Arlen Specter found himself in this dilemma when he was bounced from the Senate after five terms. The Russell, Kansas boy turned Pennsylvanian is not friendly enough to be a Walmart greeter, so he found other options. Specter will teach a college course this fall. And he has become a stand-up comedian.
You read that right. The man who invoked Scottish law at the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton and voted “not proven” has tried his hand at open mic night. Clinton is a staple of his comedic material. “I called Clinton up on his 65th birthday and I said, ‘Bill, congratulations on being 65. How do you feel?’??” Specter deadpanned. “He said, ‘Arlen, I feel like a teenager. The problem is I can’t find one.’??”
Bada-bing. The Clinton impeachment saga also makes it into Specter’s routine. “Bill Clinton is a friend of mine because I was a friend of his,” Specter cracked. “I voted not to impeach him. That’s a hell of a thing to do considering the evidence.”
Please remember to tip your waiters and waitresses, ladies and gentlemen. Specter isn’t limited to teaching and comedy. He is also the author of a new book Life Among the Cannibals: A Political Career, A Tea Party Uprising, and the End of Governing As We Know It. The title and the subtitle capture the essence well. Specter has plenty of scores to settle with the Republicans and Democrats who ended his Senate sinecure, and settle them he does. He feels wronged by his primary loss and subsequent departure from Congress, and thinks the American people should feel wronged too.
Yet Specter is an astute man. Realizing that he has just been rejected by the electorates of both major parties, he understands that the market of people who are sorry to be deprived of Specter’s legislative services might not be that big. So he also offers a history lesson, chronicling the Tea Party movement that was his partial undoing and the problems moderates face in both parties. At times, Specter is even able to do this somewhat dispassionately, a genuine accomplishment considering the bruised feelings that clearly remain.
SPECTER WAS A PARTY-SWITCHER and political opportunist long before 2010. In 1965, the man behind the “magic bullet theory” decided to run for district attorney. Specter was then a Democrat, so he paid a visit to the party bosses in Philadelphia. “We don’t need another Tom Dewey,” the Democratic chairman told Specter. They wanted the next district attorney to be someone from the party machine.
Desperate for a candidate, Philadelphia Republicans then approached Specter about running on the GOP line. Local Republican leader Billy Meehan promised Specter he would have the party’s backing. “They didn’t do me any favors in offering me the nomination, because it wasn’t worth much,” Specter writes. “I wouldn’t claim to have done them any favor in being their candidate.” Specter nevertheless took Meehan up on his offer and became the Republican nominee for district attorney—even though he remained a registered Democrat.
Quintessential Arlen Specter. Foreshadowing Michael Bloomberg’s Republican mayoral run in New York City many years later—the GOP primary was simply less crowded than the Democratic one—Specter used the Republican Party to get to a general election even while maintaining his ancestral ties to the Democratic Party. “When you see a fork in the road,” Yogi Berra advised, “take it.” And being Arlen Specter, the plan worked: he won the election by defeating the Democratic machine candidate.
“I was the first Republican candidate to ever win the backing of Americans for Democratic Action,” Specter boasts, a claim that if true should have been his future party’s first warning signal of what was to come. Specter’s Democratic father had died of a heart attack while visiting Israel months before. “I was apprehensive about running on the Republican ticket, which was almost like changing my religion,” Specter acknowledges.
Yet Specter would soon complete the conversion politically. After an election in which he benefited from the appearance of being a fusion candidate, he decided to officially register as a Republican. “It wasn’t out of any philosophical love or affinity for the GOP cause,” Specter recalls, a fact he would spend the remainder of his career demonstrating. “Ideology doesn’t drive city government.”
In Specter’s telling, however, he was a good Republican soldier. Although he wanted to run for governor in 1970, he didn’t do so because GOP leaders wouldn’t back him. Instead he “continued doing the party’s bidding” by chairing Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign in Pennsylvania and running for a third term as district attorney (a job he no longer wanted) in 1973.
The election was only days after the Saturday Night Massacre, a major turning point in perceptions of the Watergate scandal. Specter’s ties to Nixon proved too much to overcome. He lost by 28,000 votes. But he began his quest for a statewide office despite the reticence of Republican leaders. “I was still by far the best Republican candidate to run statewide,” Specter remembers immodestly, “because of my popularity in southeastern Pennsylvania.” But Keystone State Republicans had other ideas.
In 1980, Specter’s “popularity in southeastern Pennsylvania” finally paid off. He won the GOP sena-torial primary over the opposition of party leaders and then went on to prevail in the general election. Yet he didn’t put together exactly the same coalition that elected Ronald Reagan president. “Unlike nearly all the other fifteen Republicans elected to the Senate in 1980,” Specter writes, “I did not fly in on Reagan’s coattails as part of ‘the Reagan revolution,’ but in some ways in spite of it.”
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