Q&A with Senator Arlen Specter

Arlen Specter

Photo credit: Candace diCarlo

During his nearly 50 years in public life—30 of them as a U.S. Senator—Arlen Specter has not only witnessed some of the most historic events in modern history, he has played a role in them.

He’s been part of the national dialogue since as early as 1963 and 1964, when he served as assistant counsel to the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy (better known as the Warren Commission). It was Specter who developed what came to be called “the single bullet theory,” asserting that gunman Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the shooting in Dallas. The theory was controversial then, and it remains controversial today. But controversy has never been something Specter has tried to avoid. In fact, it’s been one of the hallmarks of his notable career.

I made a mistake; I should not have called it sophisticated. It’s just raw cannibalism."

As the longest-serving U.S. Senator in Pennsylvania’s history, Specter has participated in the confirmation hearings of 14 Supreme Court nominees—including the intense questioning of nominee Robert Bork (whose nomination was rejected) in 1987, and the contentious questioning of Anita Hill, who in 1991 accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. The Senate approved Thomas’ nomination by a vote of 52 to 48. In his memoir, “Passion for Truth,” published in 2000, Specter comes about as close as he ever might to an outright apology for the Hill incident, writing that he “didn’t understand the explosive nature of the [sexual harassment] issue” back then.

During his five consecutive terms in the Senate, Specter served on the Senate Judiciary Committee, including as chairman from 2005 to 2007; he was chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from 1995 to 1997 and was a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

In 2010, Specter lost his run for re-election. In September of this year, he will return to his alma mater as an adjunct faculty member at Penn Law School, where he will teach a course on the relationship between Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court, focusing on the separation of powers and the confirmation process. The former senator recently talked with the Current and Penn Law about having grown up in the same small Kansas town as retired Senator Bob Dole, his days as a Penn undergrad, his entry into politics and what he hopes to impart to a new generation of lawyers.
 
Q. Your association with Penn goes back to your days as an undergraduate. How did you decide on Penn back then?
A.
My beginning association with Penn was as a student in the College. I graduated from Penn in 1951, was on the debating team and I was a member of the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity. I came to Penn because my family moved to Philadelphia. We were living in Russell, Kansas, a little town of 5,000 people, and when my sister Shirley was of a marriageable age, there was only one Jewish boy in town and that was me, her brother. So the family moved to Philadelphia so she could meet and marry a fine Jewish boy and raise a fine Jewish family, which she did. I had been attending the University of Oklahoma and I decided to come with the family and that brought me to Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania.

Q. Russell, Kansas is the same town former Senator Bob Dole is from. Did your families know each other?
A.
Our families were friends. My father had a junkyard in Russell and my father weighed his junk on Doran Dole’s [Bob’s father] scale. He ran the local granary so he had the biggest and only scale in town that could weigh a big truck. Bob’s brother Kenny and my brother Morton were contemporaries and were friends, and of course I got to know Bob very well in the Senate.

Q. What are some of your most vivid memories about your College days? You said you were on the debate team, did that spark your interest in politics?
A.
The debate team took on Oxford in 1949. …We debated the team on the question that, Resolve: The British Empire was decadent. We won the debate on the judges’ balloting, and afterwards my father walked up to me and said, ‘Arlen, do you think it was very polite that those two young fellows came all the way from Great Britain and you beat them?’ and I said, ‘Yeah Dad, that’s debating.’

Q. Any other memories you hold dear?
A.
Sure, the fraternity house was lively on Saturday nights. I took Joan [Specter’s wife of 55 years] to a party there on our first date in the fall of 1949.

Q. After law school why did you decide to live in Philadelphia?
A.
I was in the service for two years. I was in the Air Force ROTC at Penn. The Korean War was on and I spent two years stateside with the OSI [Office of Special Investigations]. I went to law school at Yale and I had an interest in settling in Denver, where I worked for a law firm between my second and third years of law school. I was doing very well, until they found out I was Jewish. They didn’t hire Jewish fellows. I liked Philadelphia a lot and had a number of offers here, so I joined a very fine firm here— Barnes, Dechert, Price, Meyers and Rhoads—and I married a Philadelphia girl, and I’ve been here ever since.

Q. So Philadelphia came through for you when it came to battling anti-Semitism?
A.
Well, anti-Semitism, like racism, bubbles just a little bit below the surface. I’m glad to say I think those days are over. Law firms all over the country and all over the world are hiring talent now. I think we are over that, but when I was in law school it was a problem. And I talk about it because I think it’s important for people to recognize it, and not to pretend that it never happened.

Q. In your final floor statement in the Senate, you said ‘partisan gridlock’ and ‘abuse of the Senate rules’ have damaged what you called the ‘world’s greatest deliberative body.’
A.
The tradition is to have a farewell address, but I used the opportunity to make what I called a closing argument, to try to bring about some changes. It used to be that the Senate was a place where any senator could offer virtually any amendment at virtually any time and get a vote. So, with unlimited debate you could bring up new ideas and debate them. It’s a pretty good forum for attracting public attention and really doing something constructive. And then there was a rule that was abused by majority leaders of both sides where they would offer amendments so that no further amendments could be offered. They called it ‘filling the tree.’ It was a procedural device, and when it was done by Republicans, the Democrats would object that they didn’t have a chance to offer amendments and they would filibuster. The filibusters were very abusive. To break a filibuster you need 60 votes and it takes about three days of the Senate’s time.
At the same time there was a lot of partisanship over judges, because the cultural wars have been fought out at times in the federal courts on questions like a woman’s right to choose, school prayer, embryonic stem cell research. And the political parties have been controlled by the fringes. They control the primary process. For example, an excellent senator like Joe Lieberman couldn’t win a primary in Connecticut [in 2006]. I couldn’t win a Republican primary in Pennsylvania [in 2010]. Bob Bennett [former Republican Senator] of Utah had a 93 percent conservative record and he couldn’t win a primary in Utah. [Republican Senator] Lisa Murkowski in Alaska lost her primary, and she was opposed by members of the Republican caucus. People that she sits with every Tuesday for lunch, and with whom she talks about party affairs, felt she wasn’t sufficiently conservative. I called that in my speech sophisticated cannibalism, and I made a mistake; I should not have called it sophisticated. It’s just raw cannibalism. The fights between the parties have descended to a level where right now it appears we are going to have two years of chaos, until the decision is made about who is going to be elected president in 2012.

Q. Of all the places you could teach, why did you choose Penn Law, and how will you incorporate your Senate experience into your course on the separation of powers?
A.
I chose Penn because it’s one of the best law schools in the country. ... And I know a lot of the people at Penn, including one of the distinguished visiting professors named Shanin Specter [Arlen Specter’s son]. I taught at Penn in 1969, 1970 and 1971, so I know the Law School and it’s a terrific place. I have keen interest in developing ideas about the Supreme Court for the next generation of lawyers. I think it’s very important for people who have been fortunate enough to have had the kind of experiences as I’ve had to share the experiences with other people.

Q. One of the areas you will be delving into in your teaching is the relationship between Congress and the Supreme Court, as well as the confirmation process. Why focus on that?
A.
I think the Supreme Court needs to be better understood, and one of the ways to have it understood is to televise the court, which is something I’ve been trying to do for virtually my entire Senate career. The supreme court of Great Britain is televised, as is the supreme court of Canada, the state supreme courts, the U.S. Senate and the House; but the U.S. Supreme Court has resisted. … One of the grave problems of the confirmation process is that [Supreme Court] nominees make a lot of statements that are really close to commitments—you can’t sue them for deviating—but there is such a practice of totally ignoring the statements that there really needs to be a way to deal with it. For example, [Chief Justice John] Roberts wrote a concurring opinion joined by [Justice Samuel] Alito in Citizens United [v. Federal Election Commission] that is a 180-degree U-turn from the questioning in the confirmation hearings on following precedents stare decisis and on being deferential to Congressional findings of fact. And, the Supreme Court decides all the cutting issues of the day. They need to be understood. I think the legitimacy of the Supreme Court really is under attack at the moment. Not too many people know it, but their decision in Bush v. Gore was disgraceful. I use that word knowingly. [Justice Antonin] Scalia said irreparable damage would be done to President Bush’s legitimacy if the votes were counted, which made absolutely no sense. ...And there’s Citizens United, and they’ve just made a mockery of the statute which governs changes in the rules of civil procedure, but that’s a long story. …Those are some of the thoughts on my mind, just some.

Q. Penn President Amy Gutmann has said she hopes that your presence on campus will encourage more students to pursue careers in public service.
A.
I’m pleased to hear that she said that. I’ve long contended that government does not have the best and the brightest. … When I came out of law school I became a committeeman to try and work through the political ranks. Being hired in the district attorney’s office was political at the time. But once I got to City Hall I found the level of professionalism was much inferior to what there was at the big law firms. I’ve always tried to bring people into government. When I was elected DA, I had a special recruiting policy. I went to all the big law firms to try to secure a young lawyer for two years to get his services and to get experience for him. ... I’ve spoken at countless colleges and high schools and I’ve always carried the theme of ‘get involved,’ and when I interact with the [Penn Law] students I’ll be carrying that message forward. Of course my whole career has been a statement to that effect.

Originally published on March 3, 2011