The political arc of Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter’s career in many ways reflects the political arc of our own country. Specter, who died over the weekend, considered himself a centrist left behind by the Republican party. His legacy, and our current political climate, suggests that’s mostly true.
Specter began his career as a lawyer and first rose to recognition as part of the Warren Commission where he took credit for originating the “single bullet” theory that a lone gunman shot and killed both President John F. Kennedy and Gov. John B. Connally of Texas. In the Senate, Specter was a respected member of the Judiciary Committee who famously voted against the nomination of Robert Bork, spoke out critically of the “sham trial” of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, and in his 1995 Presidential run, denounced the Christian right as an “extremist fringe” that was dangerous to the Republican Party. Specter was a full-throated supporter of Roe v. Wade and a champion of biomedical and embryonic stem cell research even before he was diagnosed with cancer.
Those are all impressive moderate credentials, especially given the current positioning of the Republican party. And, had Specter managed to stay as consistently moderate in the Clarence Thomas nominations, then his legacy as a true centrist would be unquestionable.
Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Instead, Specter vigorously supported Thomas’ nomination and aggressively and in some instances unprofessionally questioned law professor Anita F. Hill about the sexual harassment complaint Hill had filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Thomas when the two worked together at the Department of Education.
Specter’s performance during the Thomas hearings went a long way to reinforce the public perception that Hill’s claims, and by proxy all sexual harassment claims, should be treated first with derision and suspicion. Her treatment helped reinforce the notion that women who file such claims clearly do so for strategic purposes and not because they have been genuinely harmed. With his treatment of Hill, Specter stained his otherwise commendable legacy on women’s rights.
Specter’s legacy will likely overlook the Thomas hearings, in part because the Christian conservatives Specter warned his party about are in charge, which means yes, Specter is a centrist by comparison. Even his treatment of Hill would be considered centrist compared to the kinds of questioning she could expect from today’s Tea Party Senators. Remember when he told Rep. Michele Bachmann to “act like a lady?” Seems downright normal in today’s misogynistic Republican party. And when we place that in the context of our national political climate, it’s easy to see just how far to the right this country has slid.
Photo from aflcio via flickr.