R.I.P. Senator Specter, You Will Be Missed

The Snarlin has ceased; via CBS News:

US Senator Arlen Specter, whose political career took him from Philadelphia City Hall to the US Congress, died Sunday morning at his home in Philadelphia at the age of 82 from complications of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. He was born February 12, 1930.

His career was marked by what the pundits and Specter himself called “fierce independence.” But long before Specter ever stepped onto the Senate floor in Washington DC, he made it into national prominence by serving as assistant counsel for the Warren Commission, which investigated the 1963 assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy.

Specter postulated the controversial “single-bullet theory” that was eventually embraced by the panel and still stands to this day, despite the cry of conspiracy theorists who say there was more than one gunman in Dallas that November day.

“Admittedly a strange path for a bullet to take, but sometimes truth is stranger than fiction,” Specter said.

We have had a complicated relationship with Arlen Specter here at Emptywheel, sometimes castigating him, sometimes praising him, sometimes laughing at him, sometimes laughing with him. Specter engendered all those things. But I always sensed a very decent heart beating underneath Specter’s surface, even if it was all too often masked by his votes for, and often vociferous support of, ever more destructive policies of the right.

For this, Specter earned the nickname “Scottish Haggis” here in the annals of Emptywheel. The term had its root in Mr. Specter’s predilection for Scottish Law, and goes all the way back to the original incarnation at The Next Hurrah. For a number of reasons, offal and otherwise, it was a nickname that stuck and seemed appropos and seemed to reflect the complicated nature of Senator Specter.

On a personal note, I did not have an abundance of interaction with Sen. Specter and his office, but in that which I did have, I found him and his office to be beyond both kind and professional. One instance stands head and shoulders above the others, and surrounded the Obama scuttled nomination of Dawn Johnsen to be head of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). It was my contention from the outset that the whip count votes were there to confirm Professor Johnsen for the job she was perfect for. And, in the roiling aftermath of the Bush/Cheney unitary executive excesses, the country desperately needed Johnsen’s intellectual sense of honesty and Constitutional integrity.

The only reason Dawn Johnsen did not get confirmed as OLC head was Barack Obama used her as false bait and cat nip for the more noisy progressive liberals. It was a glaring sign of depressing things to come from the not nearly as Constitution minded Barack Obama as had been pitched in his election run. Not only could Johnsen have been confirmed, as I pointed out before, she could also have been recess appointed by Obama. Despite all the ridicule I took at the time, that point has been proved conclusively by the later recess appointment of Richard Cordray to be head of the CFPB (another instance of Obama using a supremely qualified progressive, Elizabeth Warren, as bait and then hanging her out to dry).

The point was never that Dawn Johnsen couldn’t be confirmed, it was that Barack Obama and the insiders of his White House did not want her confirmed into leadership of the OLC. I knew that from talking to several inside the DOJ and Senate Judiciary Committee, but that was all off the record. When I found an obscure old comment from Arlen Specter indicating he was willing to support a cloture vote for Johnsen as far back as his second meeting with Dawn Johnsen on or about May 12, 2009, it was by then an old, and quite obscure comment. Specter could have walked it back or dissembled on the subject.

Arlen Specter didn’t walk it back or dissemble, instead he personally confirmed it to me. With the already in the bag vote of Sen. Richard Lugar, that was the 60 votes for Dawn Johnsen at OLC. Specter knew it would infuriate both the GOP and the Obama White House, and he knew exactly what story I was writing. He stood up. Oh, and, yes, he knew about “Scottish Haggis” too. The man had a sense of humor.

For the above vignette, and several others, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Snarlin Arlen Specter. His life and work in government spanned over five decades, he has got my salute today.

Sen. Specter repeatedly had to fight off serious cancer, and he did so with aplomb, courage and his good humor. He also was a tireless champion for the NIH and funding of cancer and stem cell research. When confronted with the last battle, the one which finally took him, Specter was upbeat, defiant and determined to get back to his part time hobby of stand up comedy. May the Scottish Haggis have many laughs wherever he may travel.

25 replies
  1. Ben Franklin says:

    The pejorative term is ‘magic bullet’, and it will define him historically. He wasn’t the worst. He wasn’t batshit crazy, but he voted with the idiots. Perhaps the best thing that could be said about him was his consistent stand for choice, and of course, Obamacare. He didn’t cat around with girls or boys, and I’m sure he loved his Mum.

  2. Robert G. Vinson's big break says:

    “Assuming… that the bullet passed through the President’s body, going in between the strap muscles of the shoulder without violating the pleura space and exited at a point in the midline of the neck, would the hole which you saw on the President’s throat be consistent with an exit point, assuming the factors which I have just given to you?”

    That is, if the bullet came out there, would that have been an exit wound? Specter’s comical question helped him and Ford suppress Jacqueline Kennedy’s eyewitness account of grabbing for a fragment of JFK’s occiput, the recovered bone fragment itself, the initial public account of Drs. Crenshaw and Perry, the evidence of Drs. Livingston and Humes and of Corpsman O’Connor, and Lt. Cmdr. Pitzer’s photographic evidence. This allowed the CIA to attribute JFK’s murder to Lee Harvey Oswald rather than to CIA assets Sergio Achaca Smith or Carlos Quiroga.

    For all time he’ll be Arlen Specter, the nice guy who made his career by concealing a CIA coup d’etat.


  3. Phoenix Woman says:

    @Robert G. Vinson’s big break: If that was a CIA coup d’etat in favor of the powerful, they really screwed up — because while JFK was a centrist who was a hardcore tax cutter, LBJ gave us the Second New Deal in the form of the Great Society as well as the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. He even, after a period of escalating JFK’s war committments, tried to get the US out of Vietnam, only to see Richard Nixon’s operatives Kissinger and Anna Chan Chennault sabotage the Paris Peace Talks just so Nixon could win in 1968.

  4. Ben Franklin says:

    @Phoenix Woman:

    Uh huh. But he did threaten to smash the CIA into a million pieces by farming out to the Pentagon. Otherwise he might have lived to a Dulles ripe-old age and made Nixon look like Lincoln, by comparison

  5. mlnw says:

    Regardless of the occasional balance in Spector’s voting record, his role in the JFK investigation was a travesty and set a horrendous precedent for what happened 40 years later with the 9/11 investigation. So, perhaps, such a kind eulogy is not warranted.

  6. Peterr says:

    “For the above vignette, and several others, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Snarlin Arlen Specter”


    *raising a glass of single malt*

    To Haggis!


  7. OrionATL says:

    if politicians are remembered fondly, it is for their personal interactions with those fondly remembering them. i had no personal interactions with senator specter.

    his behavior as a leader who always looked out for his own political well-being before that of the nation

    leads me to suspect that he will always and forever be missed –

    anytime in the future that the role is called up yonder.

  8. oregondave says:

    I join in Peterr’s toast (though, by dint of economic circumstances, with a glass of blended malts).

    Yes, Spector did much damage with his power. But, I’m working to come to terms with what it means to be on this earth as a flawed human being. At some point the finger of blame and judgment turns around, and I have to recognize how imperfect – and outright wrong – I am sometimes. I like to think that I would have done better with the power of being a United States Senator, but that can’t be known.

    Ultimately, we are called on to forgive ourselves and others, and forgiveness requires a moving on.

    Thanks, bmaz, for sharing with us the soft spot in your heart and your salute to for Arlen Spector. *clink*

  9. OrionATL says:


    forgiving is not the same act as forgetting.

    one can forgive george w. bush or barrack obama for their folly and ignorance, but forgetting the consequences of their actions would be the act of an irresponsible citizen and a fool.

    as a flawed human being, like any of the rest of us, specter can be forgiven his personal sins,

    as a public figure, he should be forgiven no action of his that harmed the public interest or that placed his own well-being above that greater interest.

    “not forgetting” is not the same as and should not be mistaken for “getting even” or “getting revenge”.

    on the other hand, “forgiving” cannot lead to there being no electoral or legal consequences for public misconduct by a pubilc figure.

    otherwise we end up with glenn greenwald’s “two-tiered” system of justice.

  10. Jeff Kaye says:

    Spector is no hero. Besides his being an ideologue for the disgraced Warren Commission (a role for which he will be forever remembered in history), he was a supporter of the invasion of Iraq, the MCA, Patriot Act, voting for Rice for Sect. of State, and Gonzales for Atty General, etc.

    As for myself, I will never forget Spector, as Chair of SSCI, running hearings on the Gary Webb “Dark Alliance” allegations, allegations that later proved to be correct, but for which Webb paid for with depression and suicide.

    Specter also disclosed that the committee took sworn testimony from Blandon in a closed-door session earlier this week in which hTC the convicted trafficker said he entered the drug trade in California in late 1981 “out of a desire to earn money for the contras.”

    But Specter added: “Mr. Blandon stated that he had never had any contact with the CIA and that the CIA was not involved in his drug trafficking business in any way.” Blandon said contra leaders had no knowledge of his criminal activities and he never had discussed selling cocaine with them, Specter said.

    Midway through the session, hecklers interrupted with shouts of “Cover-up!” and “We want answers!” as applause rippled through the hearing room.


    Democracy Now! covered some of the cover-up at the time.


    So, how is it that we should have such a kind word for a man whose entire life was dedicated to maintained the rule of a voracious group of individuals, men and women not averse to the worst sorts of crimes?

  11. OrionATL says:

    @Jeff Kaye:

    well, jeff,

    specter was a prosecutor before he was a senator.

    imagine the injustices he may well have condoned, knowing they were injustices.

    forgiving (i.e., making excuses for improper political conduct by public officials) AND forgetting by citizens leads, inevitably, to bad government –

    bad government that, as in the american south, replicated itself for decade upon decade.

  12. bmaz says:

    @oregondave: Agreed very much. The flaws will exist in history and will live in whatever infamy individuals will assign to them.

    But Specter had good to go with the bad. For the life of me, the Dawn Johnsen story I painted above was neither about me or him, nor for that matter at that point, about even Dawn Johnsen.

    It was a far bigger story about the truth of what was a false picture painted as to the fledgling Obama Administration. Damn few people struggled early on to split the fact from fiction back then. It is oh so easy now; but, trust me, it was not then. And there was so much more than that too. Was he terminally flawed, yes; was there still a lot to be admired, yes.

    If, on the fucking day he dies, some good cannot be admitted about Arlen Specter, I flinch what to think will be said about me when that unfortunate day comes. Come on folks, get a grip, get a clue, and have some fucking perspective [not aimed at Oregon Dave].

  13. guest says:

    Nice try. But I still hope he’s burning in hell where he and all like him belong. Sure we’re all flawed and maybe our flaws are worse than his. Which recognition is a big part of WHY we don’t go out and make senators and preznits and prosecutors of ourselves. It is the Specters’ and the Obamas’ and Bushes’ and Cheneys’ supreme egotism that makes them think they are fit for those positions.

  14. bmaz says:

    @guest: Well, we all have our own sensibilities, no?

    Frankly, though, there has always been a relative spectrum of political ideology in American existence. For as much as I can, and relentlessly have, castigated such relative centrist malignants as Specter and Obama, I still have a hard time being so blinded as to deny any worth on the day a man dies.

    I will leave that to you, and have none of it from me on my part.

  15. joberly says:

    @posaune: I agree with you, Posaune. His treatment of Prof. Hill was shameful at that hearing, worse treatment than even by Hatch. I never understood how Specter was not defeated in ’92, the “Year of the Woman” by Phila Co. D.A. Lynne Abraham.

  16. lefty665 says:

    @bmaz: If “relative centrist malignants” ain’t enough to turn the trick, what will you have to say about Cheney when he goes? Is there a threshhold?

    It was “you will be missed” that got me, although I appreciate the framing as in “mistakes were made”.

  17. Bill Michtom says:

    @bmaz “I still have a hard time being so blinded as to deny any worth on the day a man dies.”

    For me, the problem is the hagiography that always appears when some “relative centrist (or not-so-centrist) malignant” dies. It is the first step on the path to whitewashing that malignancy and creating a “statesman.”

    That the guy died does not afford him a cleansing of his sins. Dead or alive, he was what he was: malignant.

  18. Paul Walker says:

    Arlen Spector, one of the biggest scumbags of the 20th century finally passes before he got parked in the jail cell he so richly deserved.

  19. shekissesfrogs says:


    If, on the fucking day he dies, some good cannot be admitted about Arlen Specter, I flinch what to think will be said about me when that unfortunate day comes.

    Ahhh, on the day that you go to the big cactus garden in the sky, many nice things will be said by all. As for me, I will also talk about your brain tumor.

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