Beware of Snarlin' Arlen

My battles—on the phone! in the locker room!—with the most hot-headed, opportunistic, and unpredictably bizarre member of the United States Senate.

Scott J. Ferrell, Congressional Quarterly / Getty Images

It was a double-barreled phone call from the office of Arlen Specter, the zealously contrary senator who is now, happily for some in Washington, the Democrats’ problem. Two of Specter’s senior staffers were ready to read me the riot act. But they didn’t sound angry; they sounded nervous.

“Senator Specter asked us to call you,” the communications director began, his voice quavering. “Our press secretary is also on the line. And the senator has asked us to tape this call so we can play it back for him later.”

Just below the surface, Specter has a simmering rage that occasionally manifests itself in brutal abuse of underlings. It’s not for nothing that he’s called Snarlin’ Arlen.

Now this was a novel experience—having my phone calls monitored, ex post facto, by a livid legislator. For a second, I wondered if Specter himself was on the line, covering the mouthpiece with his hand. “The senator has asked us to inform you that your story was indefensible,” the communications director continued, “and the senator wants you to know that he will never speak to you again.”

“Well, I’m sorry he feels that way,” I managed to say in my surprise.

I was in The Washington Post’s makeshift workspace during the 2000 Republican National Convention in Specter’s hometown of Philadelphia, which was busy nominating George W. Bush. I’d guessed that the married, then-70-year-old senator would be annoyed by that morning’s gossip item, which described his flirtation with a tall blond real-estate broker from Houston during a fundraising brunch at his home. (“She’s gorgeous,” Specter had told me before crooning a love song of sorts to her, a creaky version of “Don’t Fence Me In.” “I think he’s cute,” the lady in question confided.) But I never imagined that my story would push him over the edge. The next day, the senator was front and center in The Philadelphia Inquirer, calling me a liar. "He barges in, uninvited, and writes fiction," Specter seethed.

All of which is brought to mind as I digest the slow-motion train wreck of Specter’s emergency conversion to the Democratic Party to save himself from a career-ending primary during next year’s reelection campaign in Pennsylvania.

All the elements of his long tenure as a public official are on display—many of them admirable, others not. There’s his cussed independence and political courage (discounting the enmity of his fellow Republicans in order to vote against Robert Bork during the Reagan administration and, more recently, to support President Barack Obama’s stimulus package). There’s his almost Churchillian attitude of “never give in”—a life-affirming toughness that allowed him to overcome bouts of lymphoma and brain cancer, giving hope to others confronting grave diseases.

And then, less attractively, there’s his brazenly calculating opportunism that consistently has placed his narrow self-interests over every other consideration, prompting columnist David Broder to write the other day that “he will stick with you only as long as it serves his own interests—and not a day longer.” Add to that an insatiable vanity that, by most accounts, has driven him to get more than one facelift, a deep desire for flattery (not, by any means, unique among senators), and the need to be treated like a raja. (“Where are your bearers?” fellow Sen. Joe Biden teased when they met on the track at Union Station.) And, just below the surface, a simmering rage that occasionally manifests itself in brutal abuse of underlings. Why so mad? I wouldn’t presume to psychoanalyze the man, but it’s not for nothing that he’s called Snarlin’ Arlen.

The latest news is that Specter and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are having a not-so-polite dispute about whether Reid promised him that his 29 years of Republican seniority will be transferable across the aisle. Reid says not so fast—the issue won’t be decided until after the 2010 midterms. Specter claims Reid is reneging on their deal—and that retaining his committee status and thus bumping senior Democrats is not a reward for good behavior, “that’s an entitlement!”—or so he blustered last Sunday on Meet The Press.

On the same show, Specter cautioned that “I’m not a loyal Democrat” and that, far from being the reliable 60th vote in a filibuster-proof majority, he’d lead his own filibuster against the Democratic position if he considered the issue important enough. Specter added insult to impolitesse by telling The New York Times that he hopes Republican Norm Coleman is seated in the Senate instead of Democrat Al Franken, the designated winner of the race in Minnesota. Specter later tried to walk that back, explaining that he’d forgotten what party he was in. His new comrades in the Democratic Caucus responded by busting him back to buck private, stripping him of all seniority for the rest of the 111th Congress (and potentially making him junior to the former Saturday Night Live performer).

When I lived in Washington, I used see Specter frequently. For awhile, I attended his private Wednesday afternoon Old Testament study session for senators—the regulars included Howard Metzenbaum, David Durenberger, Larry Pressler, and Chuck Grassley—led by our mutual friend, psychiatric social worker Naomi Rosenblatt. Once I went to a birthday dinner for Specter at Rosenblatt’s house, where everybody sat riveted to the television screen watching Barbara Walters grill Monica Lewinsky. Every so often I ran into him in the locker room of a fitness club on Capitol Hill where he played squash nearly every morning with one brave staffer or another. Sometimes Specter would stand by his locker, naked except for a loosely wrapped towel, and subject me to an arch interrogation like the prosecutor he once was. “Senator,” I pleaded, “it’s too early in the morning for this.”

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Later I heard a revealing story from one of his squashing-playing aides. The fitness club had replaced all the lockers, requiring members to buy new combination locks. Specter had assigned this task to the aide, but, as became clear as they started their regular game, it had completely slipped his mind. “Did you buy me a lock?” Specter asked as they stood side by side on the squash court, racquets at the ready. “Oh no, Senator, I’m so sorry, I forgot.” Specter’s eyes grew dark and hooded as he said slowly and loudly. “YOU DIDN’T BUY ME A LOCK? I THOUGHT I TOLD YOU TO BUY ME A FUCKING LOCK!” The aide drew back. “We can’t play today, you’re too mad,” the underling said, and left the court—and within a week, had left the senator’s employ. So it’s understandable if Specter’s defection to the Senate Democrats is beginning to take on the attributes of a classic be-careful-what-you-wish-for scenario. No wonder Republican media consultant Karen Hanretty, appearing on MSNBC last night with a couple of Democratic talking heads, couldn’t stifle a laugh as she declared: “He’s all yours. Have a great time.”

Lloyd Grove is a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.