Arlen Specter

Rich Yselson called Arlen Specter, who died last week, a “poor man’s Richard Nixon.” Something about Specter brought out the snark, didn’t it? At least in me it did. I once said that Pennsylvania is the largest state to have never had a women represent it in the Senate, but Specter was probably willing to consider switching if it would keep him there.

You would think that I would be a Specter fan; I generally like the broad category of non-ideological pragmatic careerists, which is generally the category Specter belongs to. I was not much of a fan. I think it’s that he was sanctimonious. I guess that’s what you would call it. Yselson calls Specter (by way of Nixon) a “brilliant, ruthless political obsessive,” but I don’t think that’s right. I’m not even sure about ruthless; yeah, he was willing to be brutal to those he opposed, but I always read that more as far that Specter was always certain that he was correct, rather than that he was willing to destroy others to further self-interest, although Nixon to be sure was always very good at believing that his sort and long-term self-interest was always part of the national interest that his enemies just didn’t see. Mostly, it’s the “brilliant” part I don’t see at all. Arlen Specter may have been Arlen Specter’s idea of a smart person, but there’s precious little evidence that I’m aware of that we should buy into it.

Specter did plenty of worthwhile things in his political career, as well as plenty of things which were disgraces. Thomas/Hill really is that bad. I’ve always thought that Democrats got a bit of a bad rap on that one; yes, they were slow to realize that the charges were serious, but then again liberal Democrats had already decided to oppose Thomas for other reasons, so Hill really was (in that sense) irrelevant to them. For those otherwise intending to vote for Thomas, however, Hill’s accusations should have made them think twice, and Specter wasn’t much for thinking twice.

Arlen Specter was one of five Senators who were subjects of (wonderful, terrific, highly recommended) short books by Richard Fenno. My impressions of Pete Domenici, Mark Andrews, Dan Quayle, and John Glenn were all improved from reading those books. Not, alas, Specter. I consider politics and honorable and patriotic profession, and for his pursuit of politics I can applaud Arlen Specter; beyond that, I should probably just stop.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.