In an excerpt from his new book, former Senator Arlen Specter recounts the town meetings that signaled the end for his brand of moderate politics.
By the spring of 2010, a kind of perfect storm was brewing for Senator Arlen Specter C’51. The collapse of the economy in 2008 and 2009, the TARP bailout and stimulus package, the growing deficit and the bitter debate over healthcare reform—among other things—had led to the rise of the Tea Party and its vehement demands for change.
Specter was not a beloved figure in Pennsylvania politics, but he was well respected as a smart, effective, and seemingly indefatigable senator, despite turning 80 that year and having overcome a series of health issues that included Hodgkin’s disease, heart-bypass surgery, and brain tumors. A Republican since his first (successful) run for the Philadelphia district attorney’s post in 1965, Specter had joined the GOP not so much on philosophical grounds as by the fact that the city’s Republican Party supported him when the Democratic City Committee would not. Once elected to the Senate in 1980, he had managed to tack a centrist course through the partisan straits, even if the GOP’s increasingly rightward drift made him vulnerable on the starboard side.
“I’d always been issue-oriented,” he writes in his new book, Life Among the Cannibals: A Political Career, a Tea Party Uprising, and the End of Governing As We Know It (Thomas Dunne Books). “I wouldn’t even call it pragmatism. It was a matter of using my own judgment and doing what I thought was right, on a case-by-case basis, on whatever issue came up.”
That approach, he adds, “had led to a host of Republican apostasies,” which included voting to increase education funding by 153 percent, “tripling NIH funding, advancing stem-cell research, and enhancing worker safety through OSHA and the NLRB.”
Though he acknowledges that he “had never really felt comfortable in the Republican caucus,” as recently as 2004 he was supported in his primary reelection bid against the conservative Pat Toomey by President George W. Bush, who called him “the right man for the Senate” and “a firm ally when it matters.”
Then came the economic collapse. Specter voted in favor of the TARP bailout and for the federal stimulus package. Though the former had been pushed by the Bush Administration and both have been credited by most economists with helping to save the nation’s economy, those votes would come back to haunt him. By the spring of 2009, his approval rating among Pennsylvania Republicans had fallen to 30 percent, and he trailed Toomey by 21 points. A statewide tour convinced him that he and the GOP now had “irreconcilable differences.”
Facing a certain loss to Toomey in the primary, Specter decided to do what many Democrats had been urging for years: change parties. On April 28, 2009, he did, saying, “My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats than I have been for the Republicans.”
And so, when the Senate voted on the Affordable Care Act the following December, Specter cast the 60th and deciding vote as a Democrat. Five months later, he would be defeated in the Democratic primary by Joe Sestak, who would go on to lose to Toomey in November.
In Chapter Nine of Life Among the Cannibals, Specter describes the highly charged town meetings about healthcare reform that he held with his Pennsylvania constituents in towns like Lebanon and State College in 2009, when Tea Party rage simmered over into a full boil. During those meetings questioners and protesters dismissed the Affordable Care Act as “a vehicle to take us down a path of socialism and totalitarianism,” called the 79-year-old Specter a “fucking traitor,” and chanted “No to socialist health-care!” One man screamed: “I hope you die!”
The chapter opens on August 11, the day of the first town meeting, with a red convertible cruising through downtown Lebanon and bearing signs that read: “RETIRE SENATOR SPECTER 2010.”
Protesters massed around the college, many waving signs reading “Obama Healthcare—Down Right Evil” and “Benedict Arlen—Don’t Reelect a Traitor!” The Times photographed a white-haired woman in metal-rimmed glasses and a floral print dress holding a handwritten sign, “I Love You ARLEN,” as a younger woman jabbed a finger at her. The caption read, “Nancy Gusti, 73, of Lebanon, stood her ground as a passerby berated her outside the meeting.”
I stepped into the auditorium. In a navy suit, white shirt, and muted blue tie, I stood on a parquet island toward the front of the gray-carpeted room. I faced the crowd, most in short-sleeved knits and shorts against the August heat, and a massive green steam locomotive roaring down the tracks on a mural that covered most of the rear wall. Mountain and town scenes cast a placid aura from the adjacent walls.
Evading our sign ban, several people carried small placards with slogans such as “Kill the Bill.” One man raised sheets of colored copy paper, laser-printed with slogans including “You are no longer trusted” and “Keep your hand out of my pocket. The well is dry!” He wore pink paper cutouts over his ears, maybe to symbolize that he was listening carefully, or not at all.
Outside, [my driver] Joe Sciarra stayed with the car, a maroon 2005 Lincoln, in the rear parking lot off Spring Street. Sciarra could cast a chilling patrolman’s glare, and stowed a revolver at the base of the driver’s seat. But he grew uneasy as the protesters massed. He found a Lebanon police officer, asked for his supervisor, and then told the sergeant that we needed more support.
I made a six-and-a-half-minute introduction, which I said was as long as anybody should speak, laying out the problems of the current healthcare system, including taxpayers’ covering steep emergency room fees, and the ground rules for the meeting: ninety minutes, and questions only from those thirty holding cards.
When I asked whoever had card number 1 to come forward, a middle-aged blonde in a turquoise top and white pants demanded that her senators and representatives also carry whatever health plan we approved for her. “I understand at this point you’re not,” she said, chopping the air. The crowd gave a burst of applause.
I responded, as I had before, that all Americans should have the same plan, including members of Congress.
Questioner 2, in a blue blouse and off-white Capri pants, shouted that she didn’t like her elected officials running around calling her un-American, a rabble-rouser, a mobster, and a Nazi. ‘‘I’m sick of the lies,” she said, jabbing a finger at me, her voice strong but tense. “I don’t like being lied to; I don’t like being lied about.” She ended by declaring, “I want you as my senator to go back to Washington, D.C. … Shut up and get out of the way.”
Before I could call on the next questioner, a heavyset man with trimmed gray hair and beard, later identified as Craig Anthony Miller, fifty-nine, charged down the aisle toward me. Face flushed, Miller waved a sheaf of papers, a water bottle wedged under one arm, a pen in the pocket of his gray T-shirt. He hollered that he wanted to speak, had been assured that he could speak, but then didn’t get one of the thirty cards: a victim of more government lies.
I strode toward Miller, closing the gap.
From the side of the room, [Frank] Leitera, the Capitol Hill police team leader, hissed into his cufflink mic, “Jesus Christ, he’s going in.”
Leitera lunged forward, and his partner rushed in from the rear.
Before they could reach the action, a burly neighbor in a white ball cap grabbed Miller and steered and then shoved him toward a row of seats.
Now, half a dozen cops and security guards were racing toward us, I shouted, “Wait a minute!”—twelve times.
I stood firm and told the closest officer not to remove or even touch Miller, I didn’t want the headline to read “Citizen Evicted.” I wanted “Senator Keeps His Cool.”
The cops stood down.
Miller, quivering, finger poking at me, shouted that he wanted to leave. I told him that was his right. He said, “I’m going to speak my mind before I leave.” Inches away, he shouted at me, “I don’t care how crooked you are. I’m not a lobbyist with all kinds of money to stuff in your pocket so that you can cheat the citizens of this country … One day God’s going to stand before you, and he’s going to judge you and the rest of your damn cronies up on the Hill …”
He gave senators credit for a bit too much power.
Shouting, “I’m leaving!” Miller stormed out of the hall, a beefy security officer clearing the way.
I held up my hand in a stop gesture. “Okay,” I said, “we’ve just had a demonstration of democracy.” As for Miller’s charge that his constitutional rights were being trampled, I said, “I’m encouraging constitutional rights by coming to Lebanon to talk to my constituents.”
The next day, The New York Times would run a front-page, above the fold photo of Miller gesturing menacingly at me, as I listened with arms folded. Network television would replay the scene constantly for days and periodically air it even months later to show Tea Party rage. The performance would land Miller guest spots on Fox and MSNBC talk shows.
Questioner 4, a middle-aged woman, told me, “I do not want to pay on a healthcare plan that includes the right for a woman to kill her unborn baby.”
I responded that although we didn’t yet have a Senate bill, I anticipated subscribers would have the option to have a plan that excluded abortion coverage while others could have the coverage if they so elected.
Questioner 6, a portly, balding, gray-haired man, hit the heart of the government-intrusion rebellion in a soft, reasoned, almost beseeching tone.
He said the healthcare plan was obviously written with the “assumption that government has the right to control our lives from pre-birth to death.”
He noted “a few problems: The illegals, they shouldn’t even be here.” He ended by imploring, “Would you leave us alone?”
Questioner 7, Katy Abram from North Cornwall Township, stood to make a speech that would launch the self-described stay-at-home mother to national celebrity. Abram and her husband, Sam, had brought a video camera and taped each other as they questioned me. Katy Abram trembled when she took the mic, her dark curly hair framing a fair complexion over an aqua T-shirt, olive shorts, and white sneakers. Gesturing with her left arm as she spoke, her voice occasionally breaking and rising, Abram said:
Thank you. I am a Republican, but I’m first and foremost, I’m a conservative. I don’t believe this is just about health care. It’s not about TARP, it’s not about left and right. This is about the systematic dismantling of this country. I’m only thirty-five years old. I have never been interested in politics. You have awakened a sleeping giant. We are tired of this. This is why everybody in this room is so ticked off. I don’t want this country turning into Russia, turning into a socialized country. My question for you is, what are you going to do to restore this country back to what our founders created, according to the Constitution?
The room erupted. One man, joining his neighbors in a standing ovation, raised his hands over his head and brought them together in thunderous claps.
I said, “Well, there are a few people who didn’t stand up and applaud, but not too many.”
Abram would soon guest on CNN’s American Morning, Fox News’s Hannity, and MSNBC’s Hardball, and headline Tea Party rallies as far away as Florida. A year after the Lebanon meeting, in August 2010, at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., Abram would receive the first Liberty Heart Award from the 9-12 Project, founded by conservative idol and Fox News host Glenn Beck.
Questioner 9, a clean-cut, russet-haired man in a blue oxford shirt, complained: “The government hasn’t done anything right … You’re taking our kids’ future and driving it right into the toilet.”
More applause. Questioner 14, a strawberry blonde in a maize blouse, introduced herself as a nurse from Lebanon and thanked me profusely for coming. Then she extolled the health plan.
“Thank you for your positive comment,” I said when she had finished. “I knew that if I looked hard enough, far enough in this large group, I’d find someone who likes the healthcare plan. Thank you.”
By this time, after some trouble with the sound system, I had been handing my mic in turn to each questioner.
Questioner 17, a heavyset, soft-spoken older man with a vigorous white beard below thinning white hair, identified himself as a former Republican committeeman who had supported me. “But now you defected.” He then said the Koran calls for slaying nonbelievers, offered to cite verses, and asked me whether I had read the Muslim holy book.
Political pundit Peggy Noonan called the 2009 “town hall rebellion” a turning point in both parties’ fortunes. “That is when the first resistance to Washington’s plans on health care became manifest, and it’s when a more generalized resistance rose and spread.”
On ABC’s This Week the Sunday following my August 2009 meetings, host Jake Tapper played some video highlights of the sessions. “That’s a lot of anger,” Tapper told me. “Where does it come from, Senator Specter?”
“A variety of factors, Jake,” I said. “I think people are very nervous because so many have lost their jobs, and I think that the uncertainty of the health-care bill ... I think we have to bear in mind that, although these people need to be heard and have a right to be heard, that they’re not really representative of America, in my opinion.”
I was wrong. The Tea Party protesters were not Astroturf, a movement manufactured and orchestrated by professional activists, but grassroots.
From Life Among the Cannibals by Senator Arlen Specter with Charles Robbins. Copyright © 2012 by the authors and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
Ed Rendell | Arlen Specter | Jon M. Huntsman Jr.
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