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The World According to Arlen

Former Sen. Arlen Specter often changed his ideological persona during his lengthy career, shifting left, then right, then left again as political exigencies required. But one thing that never changed was his remarkable ability to annoy on a bipartisan basis. 

And that peculiar candor abounds, for better and for worse, in the former Pennsylvania Senator’s autobiography, “Life Among the Cannibals: A Political Career, a Tea Party Uprising, and the End of Governing as We Know It,” which laments what Specter considers to be the death of the political center and points fingers at his former GOP colleagues and tea party activists for the partisan divide now gripping Congress.

Specter — a GOP centrist who abandoned his party in 2009 when it became clear his chances of winning a Republican primary for his long-held Senate seat were doomed — also calls out the “silent moderate majority” in Congress. This group, according to Specter, “sits on its hands,” and its members cast votes along party lines merely to ensure their own re-election. 

Specter, a recent target of conservative activists fed up with his collaboration with liberals, blames the tea party for this state of affairs, for demanding “ideological purity” from candidates and for viewing compromise as a “dirty word.”

“Ideological purity has become a precondition for support,” a still-bitter Specter writes in his book. “Politics is no longer the art of the possible when Senators are intransigent in their positions. Polarization of the political parties has followed. … When one party insists on ideological purity, compromise is thwarted and the two-party system fails to function.” 

Across 343 pages, Specter rarely notes any “ideological purity” among Congressional liberals or contemplates the possibility that deal-making by allegedly nonideological lawmakers over the past several decades led to the current state of fiscal affairs.  

(One exception — sort of — is Specter’s bemoaning a hostile union crowd upset at his position on legislation that would have ended secret ballot elections for workers whom unions are trying to organize. Specter writes of steelworkers as one would of a bunch of ungrateful teenagers: “I hadn’t thought the steelworkers … would be so hostile, considering what I had done for them over the years.”)

Specter cites his vote in favor of the stimulus package in 2009 as the main reason conservatives coalesced against him in 2010.

“The stimulus was one of ten thousand votes I had cast. From the beginning, I had been successful in doing it my way, using my own judgment, through independent actions like opposing [President Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee Robert] Bork and funding stem cell and other medical research, education, and foreign aid,” Specter writes. “I figured I might be successful again with the stimulus, but the odds were long against me. … I knew my vote was probably politically fatal.” 

He fails to comprehend that it was this very body of work that finally doomed him, not “one of ten thousand votes” he cast.

In an interview with Roll Call, Specter continued making the same case.

“Romney has had to move so far to the right that he’s changed his position on virtually every major issue: mandating health care, a woman’s right to choose — he was very much pro-choice in his early days — immigration issues,” said Specter, who happily accepted the help of conservative Sen. Rick Santorum when Specter faced then-Rep. Pat Toomey in a 2004 GOP primary.

Of Toomey, Specter writes that he “had also earned a reputation as being, foremost, out for himself.” 

At this point, the mind reels at what is surely an all-time, top-10 instance of the pot calling the kettle black.

Specter’s frankness is critical to his mission of painting a picture of roiling partisan rancor on Capitol Hill.

But some of the book’s anecdotes are cringe-inducing. “I was in the whirlpool at the Senate gym in 2008 … when Ted Kennedy came over and climbed into the bath. … It was as though a gigantic walrus had plunged into the sea, causing the level to swell,” he writes.

He also makes uncomfortable comments about 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, saying she “radiated sensuality.”

The book delivers an enlightening portrayal of how a career politician with a centrist bent views American politics today. Its central fault is that the portrait is such an unflattering one, and the author takes no responsibility for being part of the problem.

In “The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972,” William Manchester writes about Hugh Johnson, the head of the National Recovery Administration, one of the most powerful New Deal agencies. When Johnson was a kid, Manchester writes, he liked to chant, “Everybody in the world’s a rink-stink but Hughie Johnson and he’s alright.”

One gets the sense from Specter that he shares Johnson’s view of the world and that, like Johnson, he has never deigned to waste much time considering whether the world returns the sentiment.

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