Opinion: Arlen Specter, summed up in his own words

Michael Smerconish

Michael Smerconish

Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

When I heard Sunday that Arlen Specter had died, I sought solace in rummaging through personal remnants of our 30-year friendship.

My memories span campaigns, Senate hearings, radio broadcasts, martinis, dinners, birthdays and bat mitzvahs. They include a night in Havana when I watched him debate Fidel Castro at the dinner table, a donnybrook I dubbed “the D.A. vs. the Dictator.” And our time together is evidenced in campaign buttons, ticket stubs to Supreme Court confirmation hearings, tapes of radio broadcasts, manuscripts he wrote, and countless photographs. (I wear the cuff links he gave me last year for my 50th as I type these words.)

But among the items in my Specter treasure trove is one keepsake I will hold in most respect of his memory: Nine note cards from a speech Specter delivered nearly five years ago. When I told him that night that his remarks were memorable, he immediately handed them to me.

The date was Dec. 8, 2007 (it would be important to him that I get that sort of detail correct). Specter was being awarded the gold medal for distinguished achievement at the 109th annual dinner of the Pennsylvania Society. Each year, nearly 2,000 Pennsylvanians travel to New York City for a weekend of speeches, shopping, and socializing, culminating with presentation of the gold medal. There is no comparable concentration of Pennsylvania power than this annual Saturday night in Manhattan.

And so it was in the massive, main ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria that Specter’s turn came to accept his award and address the crowd of black-tied and bejeweled power brokers. Two years before, Specter had become the longest-serving U.S. senator in the history of Pennsylvania, and this was significant recognition even for a man with vast achievements.

From a seat near the dais, I could tell this was an important speech for Specter because I saw him reach inside his tuxedo as he approached the lectern. See, Specter rarely needed a script. Regardless of the setting, he would usually speak off the cuff after carefully resting his wristwatch in front of him. Instinctively, I grabbed a pen and started to take notes on my dinner program. Shorthand was never my strong suit, and I was elated when after he finished, he handed me several 5-by-8 white index cards.

There are nine note cards in total. The first two are a list of blurbs in his handwriting obviously meant to prompt his thoughts. Things like “Most treasured event — biz, law” an obvious reference to how he would begin his presentation. He also wrote “90 votes — few center,” a reflection of how many votes on any given issue were predetermined in the Senate. Specter’s remarks that night were personal and reflective of what was then already a long career in government.

He shared an anecdote about the day a subordinate in the District Attorney’s Office named Ed Rendell told him he was leaving to run for office. Specter offered an introduction to GOP power broker Billy Meehan and was surprised when Rendell said he was a Democrat.

He also spoke of his membership in the Wednesday Lunch Club, a regular gathering of two dozen Republican Senate moderates in the 1980s. Specter then lamented, “Moderates today can meet in a phone booth.”

But the final seven cards of the speech are typed in large block print. And he delivered them verbatim. Arlen Specter wanted to get this exactly right. Here is what was contained in those notes — a wonderful epitaph for a man of personal strength and integrity and political independence:

“The importance of courtesy and civility is critical at all levels — international negotiations, national, state, and local government. This weekend is exactly the kind of time when we should all reflect on how much we have in common and how much harder we should try to get along.

“In this room, right now, there likely are dozens of young men and women with the brains and energy to lead our state and nation through the breadth of this century. But will we have the discipline and restraint to get along with each to do the people’s business? If you can lift a glass together with your colleague from across the aisle on a Saturday night here in New York, you can lift your pen with that same colleague across the hall on Monday morning in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, or any place in our state.

“Moderation in the pursuit of virtue is the approach which must be extended from our county courthouses, to Harrisburg, to Washington, and beyond to international conferences.

“This is the approach that will ensure that when you future gold medalists stand in my place on a future second Saturday in December, you can declare, as do I, that we still live in the greatest country in the history of the world.”