Specter Trademark: Taking on Big Fights

Soon after the late ABC News anchor Peter Jennings was diagnosed with lung cancer earlier this year, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), himself fighting Hodgkin’s disease, wrote to the journalist. Work is the best antidote for cancer, Specter told him.

Specter may be trying to prove the point this summer: At a time when many cancer sufferers concentrate solely on fighting their illness, Specter, 75, has become a more frequent guest on Sunday morning talk shows and is at the center of some of the most controversial issues of the day. This month, he’ll be in the spotlight as he chairs Judge John Roberts’ confirmation hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court.

At times, Specter represents his party’s faithful; on other issues, he bucks the leadership. Friends and colleagues say taking on big fights is a Specter trademark.

“I think his job has been a substantial factor in saving his life,” his son, Shanin, a prominent Philadelphia trial attorney, stressed. “He said there were a lot of days he didn’t feel like getting up. But he got up every day, because he had work to do he felt was very important.”

Since arriving in the Senate in 1981, Specter has made a name for himself by taking positions that at times angered the Republican Party leadership and at times miffed his moderate Pennsylvania constituency.

He gained national attention as one of the few GOP opponents to Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987. But it was his tough questioning of Anita Hill, the lawyer who accused the Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991, that shaped Specter’s early reputation.

The questioning did not sit well with female voters in Pennsylvania, and Specter fought a difficult re-election battle a year later against Lynn Yeakel.

Judy Palkovitz, a volunteer from Pittsburgh, was recruited to speak to women who weren’t planning to support Specter’s 1992 re-election bid.

“There were a lot of people who felt he went overboard with Anita Hill,” said Palkovitz, 63. “I have friends throughout the country who will never forgive him for what he did to her, and that is baggage he has to carry.”

Mort Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America and a friend of Specter, said the lawmaker went around the state explaining his record and barely won re-election.

“He was very contrite about maybe not handling that issue in the most sensitive manner that he should have,” Klein said.

Specter — who became the first Jew to run for the Republican nomination for president in 1996, but withdrew before the first primary — now is in a “perfect position to get a second crack at history,” Palkovitz said.

By all accounts, Specter is relishing the opportunity to spearhead Roberts’ confirmation hearings as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

To win the chairmanship, earlier this year Specter had to fend off conservative Republican critics who feared he wouldn’t reflect their views on abortion and other hot-button issues. While Roberts is considered very likely to be confirmed, Specter has made it clear that the nominee won’t get a free pass.

Specter has already signaled to Roberts that he will question him about “judicial activism” and the court’s tactic of denigrating congressional measures it overturns, statements that have won praise from Democrats.

Specter has always been willing to speak his mind, no matter where the party is, said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition., comparing him to Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) who feel comfortable articulating positions that buck the party line.

“He’s always known that he represents a point of view that, while it has become a minority view within his own party, is a majority point of view within the country,” Shanin Specter said.

Often described as indefatigable, some observers say cancer hasn’t slowed Specter. He didn’t miss a day of work during his illness, even continuing to attend his morning squash games.

This summer he has been leading the fight to lift the ban on embryonic stem cell research, a position supported by much of the American Jewish community.

Specter made headlines in May when Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a key opponent of embryonic stem cell research, asked him when his life began on the ABC News program, “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

“Well, Sam, I’m a lot more concerned at this point about when my life is going to end,” Specter said.

Associates say it’s not surprising that Specter has used his illness as a platform and that he chose not to wear a wig after his cancer treatments caused hair loss.

Middle-ground positions have helped Specter consistently win majorities in Pennsylvania, a state that voted last year for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) for president, but which is also home to one of Congress’ staunchest conservatives, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).

Specter is considered part of a dying breed of moderate northeastern Republicans, often compared to former Sen. Jacob Javits of New York and former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who went on to become a U.S. vice president.

Supporters and critics alike say Specter has a strong political sensibility, which allows him to walk very close to the edge, while rarely crossing over. They say it dates back to at least 1964, when, as a Warren Commission investigator, he advocated the controversial single-bullet theory on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

“His entire career he’s been at the center of a lot of controversial issues, and I don’t think he has sleepless nights because of them, ” said Terry Madonna, director of Franklin and Marshall College’s Keystone Poll.