A history of independence

SUN JOURNAL

Senator: From his role in the Warren Commission investigation to his record in Congress, Arlen Specter continues to generate debate.

November 22, 2003|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The darts started flying 40 years ago, when the young assistant district attorney serving on the Warren Commission came up with the "single-bullet theory," leading to the conclusion that a lone gunman assassinated President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.

The attacks on Arlen Specter continued for four decades as conspiracy theorists made a religion out of the case, though the commission's findings have never been conclusively disproved.

Today, as the nation commemorates the 40th anniversary of that day in Dallas, darts are still flying at Specter, now 73 and a four-term Republican senator from Pennsylvania - but not just because most Americans still don't believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

As Specter seeks re-election next year, he faces a formidable challenge in the primary from Rep. Patrick J. Toomey, 41, a darling of the party's conservative wing. And if Specter clears that hurdle, as he is favored to do, he will encounter another established figure in the general election, Democratic Rep. Joseph M. Hoeffel.

"He's never had to face this before - two sitting congressmen. ... Two men in Congress with significant bases of their own," said G. Terry Madonna, a government professor at Millersville University in Pennsylvania.

So why is this moderate Republican senator fighting off a serious primary challenge after 23 years in the Senate, just as he is poised to become chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee?

Specter has always defied characterization, and his pragmatic approach to politics - critics would call it opportunistic - has made him a polarizing figure.

He has often voted with Democrats on social, economic and foreign policy issues - for example, advocating abortion rights and racial preferences while, as a onetime trial lawyer, opposing tort reform. Citizens Against Government Waste recently listed him in its "pig book" among Congress' big spenders.

Such a lack of adherence to the party line recently landed him on the cover of the conservative magazine National Review with the headline "The Worst Republican Senator."

Specter is demanding with his staff (he was once listed among the worst bosses on Capitol Hill by Washingtonian magazine) and is often prickly with his colleagues. Critics sometimes refer to him as "Snarlin' Arlen."

"Obviously his wife, Joan, loves him, but not many people love Arlen Specter," said Randall Miller, history professor and political analyst at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

"But they respect him for his independence and pragmatism, and especially because he delivers the goods." For those and other endearing attributes, he is also known as "Darlin' Arlen."

Specter, whose father immigrated from Russia, was raised in tiny Russell, Kan., also the hometown of former Republican Sen. Bob Dole. He came east to attend the University of Pennsylvania and Yale Law School.

He has overcome a number of weighty challenges, both professional and personal. He served two terms as Philadelphia's district attorney, but was ousted in 1973. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Philadelphia, governor of Pennsylvania and president. In 1993, he underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor. Five years later, he had double-bypass heart surgery.

In 1963, Specter - then a Democrat - was chosen for the Warren Commission because of his reputation as an aggressive prosecutor, having caught the eye of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy for successfully prosecuting Teamsters on racketeering charges.

It was his "single-bullet" theory that catapulted him onto the national stage. By analyzing ballistic, forensic, witness and photographic evidence, Specter concluded that the bullet passed through Kennedy's neck, then entered the back of Texas Gov. John Connally, exiting through the governor's chest, then deflecting downward to strike his wrist and thigh but sparing his life.

From the start, most Americans thought it was a cockeyed explanation, and even fewer believe it now. In 2001, a Gallup Poll found that 81 percent of Americans believed that there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy, while only 13 percent agreed with the Warren Commission that Oswald acted alone.

Claims of a conspiracy to kill Kennedy spawned a cottage industry and made Specter a prime target, especially after the 1991 Oliver Stone movie JFK ridiculed the single-bullet theory while embracing almost every conspiracy theory, no matter how bizarre.

In reply, Specter continues to trot out his elementary physics lesson on the bullet's trajectory. The fact that most people don't believe him doesn't bother Specter, who points out that people are still speculating about a conspiracy in President Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

"I have never doubted the conclusion," Specter said in recent prepared remarks. "The issue of conspiracy is a tough issue because you can never prove a negative."

"I have been questioned about it virtually ever week for the last 40 years," he said. "People not only ask me, they ask my wife."

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