Jewish World Review April 27, 2004 / 6 Iyar, 5764
John H. Fund
Arlen Specter's personality helps make him vulnerable in today's primary
Mr. Specter's problems aren't merely his haphazard support for President Bush's agenda or his liberal stands on many issues. The clout he has in Congress brings home a lot of dollars for Pennsylvania, but along with them come innumerable stories that he intimidates and bullies opponents and allies alike. The outcome of the race many hinge on whether the benefits of Mr. Specter's largesse are outweighed by the number of people who are fed up with a personality so alienating that it has led many in the state to dub him "Snarlin' Arlen" or "The Arlenator." Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says of Specter: "He's an intimidating senator and very successful at any game of political 'Survivor.' "
His rough edges may not have endeared him to many people, but Mr. Specter secured President Bush's endorsement after the White House realized he was in line next year to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, through which nominations for any Supreme Court vacancy must pass. The rest of Mr. Specter's considerable power derives from his ability as chairman of a key Appropriations subcommittee to personally earmark hundreds of millions of federal dollars each year for projects back home. Mr. Specter is unapologetic. "My adversaries accuse me of voting for pork," he told me last year. "I call it bringing home the bacon."
Indeed, so zealous is Mr. Specter in securing grants for the National Institutes of Health that last month he was chastised on the Senate floor by Pete Domenici, a former chairman of the Budget Committee. Mr. Domenici, a well-known advocate of greater science funding, nonetheless said the NIH has "turned into pigs. You know, pigs! They can't keep their oinks closed. They send a senator down there to argue as if they're broke." Mr. Specter promptly rose to respond: "The NIH did not send this senator anywhere. My views arise from my own research."
What concerns some Pennsylvania officials is that the Senator's research into what projects should receive federal funds may include a blatant analysis of his own political needs. Last week, Andy Roman, a Lehigh County commissioner, said that Mr. Specter's staff told him that his request for a local rail project "will never happen" because Mr. Roman was supporting Mr. Toomey in the GOP primary.
Mr. Roman says that on April 7 he started out having "a very good discussion" about the rail project with Adrienne Baker Green, the director of Mr. Specter's Allentown office. "At the end of the conversation, the question was, 'By the way, we understand there's a possibility you may not be supporting the senator.' And I said, 'Well, you're right, I'm supporting Rep. Toomey.' And the tenor of the conversation changed very quickly. They said, 'If that's the case, your rail initiative will come to a sudden end, and it will never happen.' "
Ms. Baker Green says that "not in a million years" would she have made such a statement. Mr. Roman replies that "this kind of intimidation is widespread across the whole state. Arlen Specter has put the fear of God into every elected official you talk to, and people are given the message quite clearly: That if you cross Arlen Specter, you pay a price."
Mr. Specter developed his tireless work ethic early as he rose from humble origins to graduate from Yale Law School. He then moved to Philadelphia to enter politics. Originally a Democrat, he became a Republican at 35 when in 1965 the local Democratic machine turned down his request to be nominated for district attorney. The GOP nomination was his for the asking, but he covered his bases. He changed his party registration only after he had won. After he narrowly lost a race for mayor of Philadelphia in 1967, he was advised by a friend that he needed more warmth. "Okay, I'll get some," he replied.
After three defeats for elected office during the 1970s, the "never say I'm not running" Mr. Specter hit political pay dirt in 1980 when he narrowly won the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate and defeated a Pittsburgh mayor in a test of regional strength in the fall. Since then he has spared no effort to line up the fundraising and endorsements he needs to survive in the Republican primaries where he is most vulnerable.
While Mr. Specter has survived, the same cannot necessarily be said about his staff. A 2000 Washingtonian magazine survey of congressional staffers rated him the third meanest senator. The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call once named him to a select list of "Simon Legree" bosses for his "tendency to humiliate underlings." The Washington Post concluded the worst job on Capitol Hill was "Specter flunky."
Douglas Troutman, a former aide to Mr. Specter, told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2002 that the atmosphere in the Specter office was "white-collar boot camp." When told of that description, Mr. Specter replied, "I haven't heard that one, but I wouldn't argue with it."
If his office is akin to a boot camp, Mr. Specter is exacting in specifying how he is to be treated on his many official foreign trips. Twice in recent years, outraged State Department officials have leaked to the Washington Post cable traffic detailing Mr. Specter's demands. Prior to a 2002 trip, the squash-playing Mr. Specter insisted on having U.S. Embassy officials schedule a match at 5 p.m. with a local opponent on each day of his trip. "Please have a case or two of Evian water for us to take with us at each embassy," read a planning memo directed to the embassies. Officials were to schedule "no evening events, including dinner with the ambassador or at the embassy. The Specters like to do their own thing at night." When in doubt, officials planning activities for Mr. Specter and his wife, Joan, were told: "The key to success here is to note that they are world travelers and like nice accommodations," such as Claridge's in London.
For all that it is easy to lampoon a senator for fussiness on foreign trips, Mr. Specter has never let perks distract him from his devotion to duty. But even there his exacting standards can be seen from two different points of view. In 2002, Mr. Specter was on his way from Washington on a Metroliner to New York to catch a plane to the Middle East. His press secretary called him to tell him that the Senate would be holding four floor votes that night. A worried Mr. Specter told the conductor, "I just heard we were voting four times. Is it possible to go back to Washington?" The conductor no doubt knew that Sen. Specter serves on the committee that approves Amtrak's budget but had to inform him that the rest of the train's passengers couldn't have their schedules disrupted. Mr. Specter got off at a station outside Baltimore and took a cab back to Washington.
These anecdotes are politically noteworthy largely because they are so numerous. Over a career as long as Mr. Specter's, that can take a toll. Vincent Cannato, an expert on New York City politics and author of a biography of the late John Lindsay, says that Democrat Mark Green lost his 2001 race for mayor of New York to Michael Bloomberg in large part because "there was rarely a candidate so thoroughly disliked by people in both parties." In the course of a 20-year career, enough voters may have been rubbed the wrong way by Mr. Green's smug, know-it-all personality to account for his narrow 42,000-vote margin of defeat.
Should Arlen Specter tomorrow night suffer the rare indignity of becoming a losing incumbent, his defeat will no doubt have many fathers. But one surely will be his stubborn refusal to play well with constituents and colleagues.
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in Washington and in the media consider "must reading." Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
04/20/04: Arnold Schwarzenegger thinks making laws should be a part-time job. He's right