It was impossible to be a journalist in Philadelphia and not encounter Arlen Specter.
It was just about impossible to be engaged in the Philadelphia Jewish community and not encounter Arlen Specter.
As a member of the working press in Philadelphia for decades, and as a parent active in my children’s Jewish day schools, I can attest: The man was everywhere.
His tenacity and irascibility were legendary on Capitol Hill, where he was known as a fiercely independent U.S. Senator and a man who followed his own instincts on politics, policy and self-preservation, sometimes in equal measure. Perhaps less appreciated was his seemingly constant presence in his hometown and his willingness to help institutions that either he cared about, or were the object of family member’s affections.
Specter died today after many fitful years of battling one type of cancer or another. Though he came near death several times, he always seemed to defy conventional medical wisdom and bounce back, just as he defied conventional political wisdom to break with his party on a controversial issue or, as in 2009, abandon it altogether.
For better and worse, he was his own man.
The last time I saw him long enough to have a real conversation was in 2008, at a mock political convention held at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. One of his granddaughters was a student at the pluralistic day school (where my children also attended), and Specter offered to give the keynote address. It was a passionate call for bipartisanship and civic involvement, with a detour that included a rambling disquisition about his Senate investigation into an alleged cover-up of a cheating scandal at the New England Patriots-Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl game.