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The Personal and the Political

April 5, 2012 By:
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Throughout his life in politics, former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter often invoked the name of his Yiddish-speaking father, Harry, who left czarist Russia in 1911 for a better life in the United States.

Sometimes, the younger Specter would highlight how his father had once owned a junkyard and did whatever he could to get his family through the Great Depression, including moving them back and forth from Kansas to Pennsylvania, where he had siblings. At other times, the lawmaker focused on his father's World War I service.

But even when speaking before Jewish groups, Specter rarely, if ever, mentioned that his father died while visiting Israel and is buried in a Tel Aviv cemetery.

That fact was dropped into Specter's latest book, Life Among the Cannibals: A Political Career, A Tea Party Uprising, And the End of Governing as We Know It. While certainly not a bombshell, the revelation offers some new insight into the life of a politician who has been in the public eye since the 1960s.

The book, Specter's third, covers his last, tumultuous years in the Senate, including his controversial vote to support the federal stimulus package, his dramatic party switch and, ultimately, his defeat in the 2010 Democratic primary. It's also a polemic in favor of moderate politics based on pragmatism.

Specter, 82, spoke with the Jewish Exponent last week as part of a blizzard of interviews he gave to promote the book. On March 29, he also spoke at the Free Library of Philadelphia, where he was asked a wide array of questions, including about two issues that have followed him throughout his career: his "single bullet" theory of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and his questioning of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court nomination hearings.

It is in the context of explaining his 2009 switch from the GOP to the Democratic Party that he reveals the information about his father's death in Israel. Specter recounts how in 1965, he, a longtime Democrat, decided to run on the Republican ticket in the race for Philadelphia district attorney.

His decision came a year after his father's death, he writes, and he desperately missed getting his father's approval. Harry Specter, a New Deal Democrat, had believed in the power of government to help others and he had blamed the Republican Party for the way President Herbert Hoover treated World War I veterans.

"Israel was very near and dear to his heart," Specter said of his father. "He had always expressed an interest -- it sounds kind of peculiar in retrospect -- of dying and being buried in Israel."

Harry Specter and his wife, Lillie Shanin, had long wanted to visit the Jewish state and, in 1964, finally got their chance.

"The heart attack came as a result of his exerting himself," recalled Specter. "He wanted to see everything he could."

Lillie Shanin sent a letter to her children about the heart attack: Specter received the letter 10 days later, shortly before he got the call from his mother that his father hadn't made it.

Specter and his older sister Hilda flew out immediately. Their other two siblings couldn't make the trip.

"It was a very tough trip. My mother was weeping in the dusty Holon Cemetery," he said. He said he didn't volunteer the information during his long career because the experience was so traumatic. In addition, he said, he never wanted to give the impression that he was trying to score political points with pro-Israel groups by using this episode.

He returned to Israel for a visit in 1969, and has been there more than two dozen times since. As a five-term senator, Specter was always regarded as highly supportive of Israel, even if he deviated from pro-Israel orthodoxy at times by advocating for increased diplomatic ties with Syria and Iran.

The book conveys that Harry Specter had an outsized influence on his son's life and political thinking, even long after his passing.

Specter said that in facing one of his biggest disappointments -- his 2010 primary loss to Joe Sestak, who in turn lost to Specter arch-rival Pat Toomey -- Specter pondered the many difficulties his father faced in life.

"He had a tough life, a lot tougher than mine," Specter said, noting that his father was one of eight siblings, was born in a hut with no floor and spoke of Cossacks coming through his small Ukrainian town looking to harm Jews.

"It was a tough loss, but nothing like he put up with, and he always maintained a very positive attitude."

Specter, the father of two sons, said he hopes his grandchildren's grandchildren know about their ancestors in Russia's Pale of Settlement.

All four of Specter's granddaughters have likely absorbed some of that broader history of European Jewry -- and the American immigrant experience -- as students at the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School.

On May 30, the school is set to honor Arlen and Joan Specter, at its annual community fundraising event.

Noting that the day school impetus came from his daughter-in-law, Tracey Specter, the former senator nonetheless said he's "very much in favor" of a Jewish day school education.

Tracey Specter also was the lone dissenting voice in the immediate family when it came to his party switch, according to Specter's book. She thought he shouldn't do it on principle.

Specter, an East Falls resident, has kept a relatively low profile since leaving office: He teaches a class at the University of Pennsylvania's law school and -- seriously -- has performed a few stand-up comedy routines.

A two-time survivor of Hodgkin's Disease, he also plays squash on a near daily basis.

With regard to the new book's title, the cannibals, in Specter's view, are some of his former Senate colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, as well as many of the conservative Republicans he claims drove him and other moderates from the party.

In his media appearances, Specter repeatedly asserted that he penned this third book to argue that America needs to recapture the political center from the fringes dominating both parties.

"America has to be awakened to bring out the voters who will put moderate officials back in office to compromise and work out the problems. It is not happening now," said Specter.

But the book is also a defense against the charge, lobbed at Specter throughout his career, that he operated out of political expediency rather than conviction. The former senator said he supported the stimulus bill knowing full well it could endanger his career, but thought that a huge injection of federal dollars into the economy was needed to prevent another depression.

Many Republicans considered the vote, and the subsequent party switch, as the ultimate acts of betrayal.

As for where he stands now, Specter said he considers himself an independent and he hasn't yet decided who he's supporting for president.

Concerning President Barack Obama, Specter expressed frustration in the book that Obama didn't personally campaign for him in the days leading up to the primary. (Most analyst believe Obama stayed away because he'd already been stung making last-minute appearances for losing candidates.)

On policy, Specter said that Obama made a mistake in ordering a troop surge in Afghanistan. He also wrote that Obama doesn't seem to know the difference between the West Bank and Jerusalem.

In the interview, he said he worried that Obama has taken too much of an "even-handed" approach to Israel. But even though he said he wished the president would be "more vocally supportive," he thinks that Obama "will act to support Israel when push comes to shove." He also asserted that Israel has an unwavering friend in the White House in Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime Specter friend and ally.

Specter said that he doesn't expect that Jews unhappy with Obama's Israel policies will defect to the GOP in large numbers come November.

"I think as the Republican Party moves farther to the right," he said, "it solidifies our community within the Democratic ranks."

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