PITTSBURGH — Arlen Specter is a reasonably tough guy. He has survived two forms of cancer and multiple election losses with few public complaints.
But in his new memoir "Life Among the Cannibals," set for publication in late March, Specter, 81, acknowledges more than a few psychic bruises, including one incurred during a visit to Carnegie Mellon University in June 2010. Shortly after his loss to former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak in the Democratic primary for his U.S. Senate seat, he hitched a ride from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh on Air Force One, chatting with President Barack Obama near the end of the short flight.
As the president spoke on campus, Specter recounts, "I was a little surprised when he did not acknowledge my presence, especially when he started off thanking Mayor Luke Ravenstahl for meeting him at the airport, looking straight at Ravenstahl and me sitting together in the audience's front row. He acknowledged a number of people, but not me."
Specter describes the slight as more confounding because in his speech the president cited two of the administration's legislative priorities for which Specter's votes were crucial: the economic stimulus and health care reform. The incident reminds Specter of this maxim: "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." But Pennsylvania's longest-serving senator adds, "I'd be less than candid — and less than conscious — if I didn't say that it hurt."
In Specter's retelling, that was not the most consequential of the slights from an administration that he had allied himself with after his stunning conversion from Republican to Democrat in the face of a repeat primary challenge from Pat Toomey.
Early in the book, Specter recounts a reporter's primary-night question: "Why didn't the president come to Philadelphia for you in the last few days before the election?"
"He probed an open wound," Specter says. "Some argued that the president had thrown me under the bus, suggesting that Obama thought our prospects weren't good."
Specter describes the closing days of the last of his many campaigns (he lost re-election in 1973 as Philadelphia district attorney) as filled with frustration over steadily eroding poll numbers.
"It looked especially bad when the president, on the Thursday before the election, flew over Philadelphia en route to New York City, and then, on primary day, flew over Pittsburgh to visit a factory in Youngstown, Ohio, 22 miles from the Pennsylvania border, for a stimulus event."
The book, written with Charles Robbins and subtitled "A Political Career, a Tea Party Uprising and the End of Governing As We Know It," is published by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press. An advance reading copy has been sent to book review media.
Specter's reservations about his post-conversion treatment from the White House are mild compared to the anger that shows through in descriptions of his dealings with Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader.
Specter says Reid assured him that, upon switching caucuses, he would retain the decades of seniority that boosted his influence on powerful committees such as Judiciary and Appropriations, and, with it, one of the more powerful arguments for his re-election. Speaking to reporters at the time, Specter downplayed the seniority issue, suggesting that it was a relatively minor complication that would be straightened out after the next election. The manuscript makes clear that behind the serene public facade Specter was anguished and irate.
Despite the promises that Specter describes, Reid could not deliver on his seniority pledge because of resistance from Democratic lawmakers who would have had to step aside to accommodate the new member of their caucus. The Specter prose seethes as he describes how Reid, with no advance notice, filed a motion in a near-empty Senate chamber that stripped the veteran of nearly three decades of seniority, the coin of congressional influence.
"I was stunned," Specter said. "In heavy competition, it was the worst moment of my life. ... They had broken a specific, unmistakable commitment from Reid, and taken away what everyone recognized as my status."
Specter said his first reaction at what he saw as a betrayal was to abandon his re-election plans, serve out his term and retire. But a "fighting mad" exhortation from his wife, Joan, changed his mind.
"'Don't you even consider that! You are bigger than all of that. You are Arlen Specter. You are Arlen Specter. You are a giant of the Senate,'" her grateful husband quotes her.
In the face of this "ignominious" treatment from Senate colleagues, he writes, "Maintaining poise and dignity was the toughest thing I'd ever done. Joan's words — 'You are Arlen Specter. You are Arlen Specter' — kept me going."
To try to rehabilitate the image and reality of his Senate clout, Specter pressed Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa to allow him to chair an Appropriations subcommittee on health, education, labor and pensions, a request that he told his colleague "was vital, really indispensable for my re-election." Specter said Harkin spurned his request, prompting "the only heated argument I ever had with a Senate colleague during my 30-year tenure."
"Harkin's conduct ranked very close to Reid's duplicity," Specter observes.
Despite such angry and emotional passages, the latest Specter memoir is also leavened with humor from his own stand-up routine — think Bob Dole and Viagra — and from anecdotes about the literal and figurative giants with whom he served.
He describes sharing a whirlpool bath with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy: "It was as though a gigantic walrus had plunged into the sea, causing the level to swell."
The image must have stuck with Specter. Later, he describes his standard answer to complaints about lawmaker perks — "You wouldn't say that if you had to see Ted Kennedy naked in the gym."
Among the jokes he relates is one from the president who was elected with Specter in 1980. He recalls a conversation with Ronald Reagan in which the Gipper inquired, "Did you hear the one about our sending condoms to the Soviets, 16 inches long" — pause — "marked 'Medium'?"
"I have since wondered whether Reagan was in the early stage of developing Alzheimer's at the time," Specter adds.
The book follows on Specter's more extensive memoir, "Passion for Truth." It also recounts behind-the-scenes elements of his "toughest fight," a successful effort to retain the Judiciary Committee gavel after a conservative revolt following his 2004 re-election as well as his decision to back the Obama administration stimulus bill and the calculation that led to his defection from the GOP.
The "cannibals" of Specter's title are the political extremists of both parties whose influence he blames for an overall erosion in public life and the ability of the federal government to function. He counts his successor, Toomey, as among that group for his efforts, allied with his former organization, the Club for Growth, to purge the GOP of the endangered species of middle-of-the-road, moderate lawmakers.
The book also bemoans what Specter sees as a new spirit of judicial activism by courts defying Congress.
Specter offers a few prescriptions for what he sees as a political environment in which "the vitriol and hatred on all sides is overwhelming."
He urges open primaries, such as those in New Hampshire, in which voters may choose to cast ballots in either party's primary, regardless of their registration.
"If Pennsylvania had followed such a course, I would not have had to switch parties," he writes.
As an alternative, Specter also lauds non-partisan primaries, open to all parties, in which the two top vote-getters face off against one another.
Turning to the chamber where he served for three decades, he offers a series of rules changes that he says would serve as an antidote to its current state of gridlock. He says that one improvement would be to prevent the majority from blocking a senator's ability to offer amendments. That coupled with rules to discourage the current widespread use of filibusters, he believes, would curb some of the Senate's worst procedural abuses.Comment on this story
But the major change that Specter seeks involves the nation's broader political culture.
"(T)he rise of political extremism in recent decades poses a new or amplified threat to the United States," Specter contends. "The fringes have displaced tolerance with purity tests and continue purging centrists, with senators campaigning against colleagues and even caucus mates in what sometimes seems a cannibalistic frenzy."
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com