Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is the Metro Editor for WNYC News. She has previously served as Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
I first saw Arlen Specter in September, 1990. Working for then-New York City Comptroller Liz Holtzman, I travelled down to Washington with her, where she was testifying in the confirmation hearings of Justice David Souter. Like Specter, Holtzman had been a D.A., and the then-curly haired former Philadelphia prosecutor parried sharply with the ex-Brooklyn D.A. on whether Souter had appropriately applied the rape shield law in a New Hampshire case. Holtzman argued that Souter had not been sufficiently attentive to the victim’s privacy rights, Specter disagreed. Strongly.
I got an early peek at what the nation would see a year later during the confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas – an all-white, all-male judiciary committee, seemingly out-of-touch with women’s issues, patronizing to the witnesses who appeared before them – below them, as it happened – in a room that felt a whole lot smaller and more stifling than it looked on TV. Specter, at the time, seemed about as Republican as you could get.
Twenty years later, Souter is practically a moderate on the court, and Specter is a Democrat. In the post-Anita Hill days, Specter worked hard to make amends with women’s groups and moderates, and over the years he managed to wear the “proud-centrist” label proudly to fend of attacks from the right.
Until this election cycle.
Fearful that Republican voters would toss him out after his public disagreements with President George W. Bush (on The Daily Show, Specter showed just how painful it had been to be literally held at arm's length by the President during his bout with cancer) and being one of three Republicans to vote for the stimulus bill last year. Specter became a Democrat, and won the support of both President Obama and Vice President Biden.
It was not enough. Democrat primary voters are no more likely to embrace centrists than are Republican primary voters – and the primal scream against incumbents and the political establishment that began last November and peaked in Massachusetts in January could still be heard last night.
Shortly after 10:30, Arlen Specter took the stage, and came as close to speechless as any candidate I’ve ever seen on an election night. When he did find words, he spoke as a man under water, the words barely issuing from his mouth, through the sound system, and across wires to TV screens everywhere. He managed to choke out thanks in a room that was dead-silent at points, before finally, mercifully, ending the space, and leaving the stage, for good.