Politics & Policy

A Frightful Specter

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared in the July 10, 1995, issue of National Review.

“Here’s the guy I’m backing,” squawk-radio star Howard Stern announced one morning as he played “Hail to the Chief,” then introduced Pennsylvania senator and GOP presidential hopeful Arlen Specter. “The number-one reason I like you for President,” Stern said, “is that when I said your wife looked like Pamela Anderson [Baywatch, Playboy] you didn’t know who that was. I like that. You don’t have time to waste on these ridiculous shows.” Specter said he watched C-SPAN. Boring,” said Stern. “That’s what I like.”

But enough about you. “Here is my assessment. Clinton is actually in good shape now, because the Republican front-runner is Bush.”

“Dole,” said Stern side-kick Robin Quivers.

Whatever. Stern dislikes Dole because he strokes social conservatives. “This bowing to the Religious Right will scare the majority of Americans.” Specter, on the other hand, “says he’s for abortion.”

“I’m not for abortion,” Specter interjected.

“You know,” said Stern.

“What’s with the flat tax?” Stern continued. “You into that now?”

Specter seized the respite of dollars and cents. “It’s one thing to balance the budget. But we also have to have growth. Now that Jack Kemp is out of the race, I’m the only one who is for growth.” He circled back to the social issues, in an effort to define them his way. “There is a very, very important place in public life for people with religious convictions. But Ralph Reed Jr. wants to impose his views on America. He wants to change the First Amendment. I can prove they’re a fringe.”

If Ralph Reed is a fringe, what is Specter? He cited a CNN/USA Today poll which “had us up to 4 per cent. That’s not a big number. But when you start at zero …”

“That’s the right direction!” said Miss Quivers.

Stern ended the segment by exhorting New Hampshireites who pick up his show from Boston: “Whatsa matter with you stupid skeeves? You hillbillies? … Get the maple syrup out of your ears, you friggin’ lumberjacks.”

“They’re a great state, Howard,” said Specter. “Their motto is ‘Live Free, or Die.’”

Howard Stern, Kingmaker

HOWARD STERN is a serious man; he helped elect Governor George Pataki in 1994. It’s not clear what Arlen Specter ultimately wants from the 1996 race. What is clear is that he likes to fight, and that his main tactic so far has been to pick a fight with the Religious Right.

Arlen Specter began his road to the Howard Stern show in Kansas. He grew up in Russell, home of Bob Dole. So this small Midwestern town has produced one man who might be the next President. Specter’s father was a Jewish immigrant from Czarist Russia, and a wounded World War I vet who wanted the bonus that sent the Bonus Marchers to Washington during the Depression–facts which Specter cites as on-going influences on him.

Specter’s career took him through some of the most contentious episodes in recent political history. Eight years out of Yale Law School, he became a staffer on the Warren Commission. David Belin, who also worked for the Commission, recalls Specter as “extremely competent” and “well organized.” Specter came up with the theory that the bullet that passed through President Kennedy’s throat and the bullet that wounded Governor Connally were the same (hence, no second gunman). There went Oliver Stone’s vote.

Two years later, Specter ran for district attorney of Philadelphia. He was a Democrat, but the only openings were in the GOP, so he switched to fight. In Philadelphia at that time, the Republicans were the goo-goo, liberal party, so the switch was not so drastic. The Seventies were a fallow decade for him: he lost the district attorney’s job in 1973, then lost two Republican primaries, for senator and governor. He finally won a nomination and his Senate seat in 1980, and was assigned to the Judiciary Committee.

One of the great trench wars of the Reagan years was over judicial nominations. “He was always–repeat, always–a question mark,” says Patrick McGuigan, who was then director of the Judicial Reform Project of the Free Congress Foundation. “He was not even a square liberal. You could have dealt with that. But he had to invent a moral dimension to fit his own complex political situation.” At the end of his first term, he voted against the Reagan Administration in two bitter, losing battles: to make William Bradford Reynolds associate attorney general, and Jefferson Sessions III a federal district-court judge. An even more bitter vote came at the beginning of his second term, when Judge Robert Bork was nominated to the Supreme Court. Specter didn’t like Bork’s opinions–”in sharp variance from Justices from Holmes all the way to Chief Justice Rehnquist.” But he also said he didn’t like the possibility that they might not be Bork’s opinions: “Where’s the predictability?” Specter’s announcement that he would vote against Bork marked the end of that battle The mother of all battles came a with George Bush’s nomination of Clarence Thomas and Specter’s questioning of Anita Hill. Anthony Lewis compared him to a “mean-spirited small-town prosecutor.” Whatever his spirit or the size of his town, he relished the role. According to David Brock, when an aide presumed to pass him a prepared question, the aide was almost fired.

His Own Man

FORMER Senator Malcolm Wallop remembers his colleague as ‘bone dry. He was very taken with himself. He was not a strategic politician. He did not cobble together a group of politicians to get something done.” David Buffington, editor of Pennsylvania Report, a local political newsletter, says that since the Thomas-Hill hearings, the Left hates him as much as the Right. But “everyone’s always hated him. Arlen has no friends. He has allies. Every election he puts together a new coalition. He’s a fighter, a tactician, a political junkie. He revels in this.”

Specter has been feuding with fellow Republicans in Pennsylvania for years. He feared that the moderately conservative Richard Thornburgh would give him a primary battle in 1986. In 1994, he supported solidly conservative Rick Santorum’s successful challenge to Senator Harris Wofford, but only after trying to persuade Senator John Heinz’s widow, Teresa, to seek the nomination. (Teresa Heinz is now married to Democratic Senator John Kerry.) Democrats and feminists labored to knock Specter off in the Year of the Woman; Betty Friedan called him “Public Enemy #2,” after George Bush. But his opponent, Lynn Yeakel, was a natural-born nonpol. She called Juniata County “Juanita County.” Specter visited every county in the state, and eked out a 49 to 46 victory (a Libertarian got the remaining 5 per cent).

How does a man with no friends and a shaky base get to the White House? Specter has positions on a range of issues. As a former DA, he talks tough on crime. His flat tax calls for a 20 per cent rate, with exceptions only for mortgages and charitable donations. He held Senate hearings on the militia movement after Oklahoma City, but he says he also wants hearings on Waco and Ruby Ridge. His main issue, though, is standing up to the Religious Right. When he announced his candidacy in Washington in March, he said that “neither this nation nor this party can afford a Republican candidate so captive to the demands of the intolerant Right that we end up re-electing a President of the incompetent Left. . . . I agree with Barry Goldwater when he said we need to keep the government out of our pocketbooks, off our backs, and out of our bedrooms.” His anti-trinity is Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson, and Ralph Reed, whom he always identifies as “Jr.”

Roger Stone, his political guru, agrees with Howard Stern that the message has resonance. ‘Specter is philosophically closer to Ronald Reagan than Pat Buchanan.” Then how did Reagan win twice with a–Reaganite position on social issues? “Reagan gave great lip service to the social issues, but he never did much. His affable personality persuaded people that he would not push his views on them.”

In the short run, Stone looks for early bounces in Iowa and New Hampshire. “If Bob Dole is front-runner with 50 per cent, you can be second with 13 per cent.” Some of those votes will come from Democrats. Stone notes that there will be no Democratic primaries, and that cross-registering is easy in both states. “That’s how Hart won in New Hampshire in 1984.” As he hopes to use the Right to woo terrified Democrats, he hopes to use it within the GOP as a debating partner. “Buchanan is our foil and we are his. . . .There are only two candidates with a real message, who know what each one thinks, and who say it.”

“When you watch the audiences at Republican forums,” says pollster Ed Goeas, president of the Tarrance Group, “Buchanan and Specter are the two candidates who generate a great deal of emotional attachment.”

But seriously, folks. The summer stormlet that blows away by January is a feature of the election cycle. Tom Harkin, Paul Simon, Alan Cranston: where are they? Republicans who want to make a stand against the social conservatives will wait until Pete Wilson is up and lumbering. David Buffington has another idea. Suppose Specter “comes to the convention with a bloc of moderate delegates that he offers to someone in exchange for a Supreme Court nomination.” It would be almost worth it, to have some Republican senator of the class of ‘94 ask the nominee, Where’s the predictability?”


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