By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
A stiff-backed Arlen Specter bounded out of his burgundy Lincoln Town Car at a community center here and into a scene that had become all too familiar for the 79-year-old senator: "Arlen!" several hundred of his fellow Pennsylvanians screamed. "Say 'no' to health care!" they chanted in a moblike throng around his motorcade's path.
This was the fifth of Specter's health-care town halls, each of which has been must-see TV. President Obama's ambitious reimagining of how Americans get sick and die may succeed or it may fail, but it's the electricity between Specter and Pennsylvania itself that may define the fight for the history books. In Pennsylvania, after all, misgivings about Obama persisted past last year's primaries and had to be salved by the inclusion of Scranton native Joe Biden on the Democratic ticket. And the political struggle for Specter won't end with this bill -- it is the first of three challenges, the second being his 2010 Democratic primary and the third being the general election, if he makes it that far, against the man whose challenge he escaped by switching parties in April.
Specter's path to political survival takes the Kansas-born son of a Russian Jewish immigrant directly into the most fractious American dilemmas, and on this day, he ignored hundreds of hecklers and followed his beefed-up security detail into a holding room. For two minutes, Specter stood in silence and stared out a window into a scrubby back lot. He scanned over his notes on an index card, fiddled with the hearing aid in his right ear and said, "It's showtime."
Whether he turned the volume up or down, he still had to confront seething constituents face-to-face and stay true to the flinty, unflinching persona that has made him such a fixture in Keystone State politics. And knowing that this summer's heat had more than the usual dangers, Specter asked the officers whether the audience had been cleared through metal detectors. The answer: No. Specter paused. For a moment, he processed the implications, with a hint of concern in his eyes. Then he clapped his hands together and shuffled slowly down an empty corridor toward the rowdy hall. Any fear fled from his face as he grabbed a microphone and entered the fray.
"Booo! Booo!" some attendees screamed. Others tried to shout over them: "Let him speak! Let him speak!"
"I'll report back to my colleagues in Washington what the temperature is in Kittanning," Specter said in his signature gravelly monotone. "It's about 213 degrees Fahrenheit." (He noted later, ever technical, that he chose that temperature because it's one degree above the standard boiling point of 212 degrees.)
The temperature was about the same in State College the day before, in Lebanon and Lewisburg the day before that, and in Philadelphia to start it all off. "There is great anger in America today, really occasioned by the terrible economy and all the unemployment," Specter told reporters after one of the town halls. "When you have health care, it's a flash point. The genie came out of the bottle."
As Specter caravanned across Pennsylvania describing the proposal in patient, methodical terms, the president he was defending suddenly personalized the debate, with Obama retelling the drama of his grandmother's dying days. On the stump, Specter keeps own medical history mostly private, though his is a compelling tale. So much of it has been publicly visible -- the incision marks on his scalp, the slow-to-return gray nest of hair that replaced thick, dark curls were evidence of bouts with benign brain tumors in 1993 and 1996, and then cancer in the form of Hodgkin's disease in 2005 and 2008.
Specter chose to become a Democrat, after a kitchen-table strategy session with his son, and concluded it would be an easier reelection route -- until Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak declared his candidacy Aug. 4. An energetic upstart from the Philly suburbs, Sestak is quicker to share his own saga of overcoming a brain tumor, albeit one that arose in his 4-year-old daughter. Four years ago, Alexandra Sestak received a diagnosis of an often-fatal cancer similar to Sen. Ted Kennedy's illness. A doctor told Sestak that she had three to nine months to live. At that point, Sestak recalled, "Nothing else mattered."
Just as he was returning to civilian life after years as a naval officer, Sestak took Alexandra on a cross-country quest for survival, with every day presenting a lethal concern that her cancer could spread. Father and daughter went all over the map to consult pathologists and other specialists -- to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, to Children's Hospital in Washington, to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Alexandra underwent three operations, chemotherapy and radiation, and she endured.Changing Parties
The lesson for Sestak the lawmaker is in his health-care plan, which he has no doubt saved his daughter's young life. "Tricare permitted me to do that," Sestak said, touting the health coverage he earned as a benefit of his military service. If he had a higher deductible or no coverage at all, the happy result would likely have eluded his family.
Specter, whose argumentative skills were honed as a big-city prosecutor, has yet to debate Sestak face-to-face, but the challenger's compelling case seems to have animated the incumbent, who will be an octogenarian by the May 2010 primary. During five terms in the Senate, Specter has demonstrated a famously fierce independence, but now must prove his loyalty to a new party and his maverick status as a gut-check lawmaker all in the same contest, and often in the same speech.
A mid-July Quinnipiac University poll showed Specter enjoying a 20-point lead over Sestak, a relative unknown statewide. That's an advantage that Specter would not have had in a Republican primary, in which he would have faced a rematch against Pat Toomey, a hard-line conservative who nearly nudged the senator out in 2004. Among Democrats, however, there remains "deeply rooted skepticism" about Specter, said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist and pollster at Franklin and Marshall College, who cautions against counting Specter out. "Look, Arlen Specter is fearless. No one will ever accuse him of running away from a fight or ducking his constituents. He's never done that. He is absolutely doggedly determined to win this election."
Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D), one of Specter's oldest friends, added: "It's impossible to wear him down, even at his age and with all the physical challenges he's had."
Specter believes his steady town hall appearances will endear him to his new party's voters. At each stop, he vigorously defended Obama. When a man in Lewisburg asked, "Is the president lying? Is he confused?," a forthright Specter cut him off and shouted: "No!"
Specter used such encounters to apply his Capitol Hill sobriquet -- Snarlin' Arlen -- in service to a new conclave of progressive bloggers and liberal activists. "When tough issues come up and President Obama needs a spokesman to go out and face hostile crowds, I can do it effectively," he told the Netroots Nation convention in Pittsburgh on Friday.
For all his fire, Specter seemed out of place onstage wooing liberal bloggers, who sat around tables typing on their laptops. He griped onstage about his contemporary and adversary, Iowa GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley, a dispute over "death panels" that, later in the day, resulted in a Twitter spat between the two elderly newcomers to the technology. When the senator plugged his campaign's latest text-messaging gimmick, he resorted to reading from a notecard, never betraying any unease that it has all come to this. As Specter left the stage, he stepped slowly down a set of stairs, gripping the rail.
The more youthful Sestak was at home with the Netroots Nation, by contrast, racing up the steps to roaring applause just after Specter climbed down. And in a straw poll following the back-to-back sessions, the liberals overwhelmingly supported the challenger.
But that doesn't worry Specter's supporters. "He's been able to get elected and reelected under sometimes very adverse circumstances," said Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), who has joined many in the party establishment in endorsing Specter.
Specter likes to boast that he often crossed the aisle, noting he started his political life as a Democrat before joining the GOP to run to be Philadelphia's district attorney in 1965.
"I voted with the Democrats over the years probably more than with the Republicans. You know that," Specter said in an interview, resting in the cream-leather back seat of his Town Car. The sharp-tongued and quick-thinking senator rattled off his breaks with the GOP: "Pro-choice. Unemployment compensation. Stem cell research -- broke with Bush. Comprehensive [nuclear] test ban treaty. The works."Modern Medicine, Exhibit A
Yet he was not always this way. In late 1993, as President Bill Clinton was pushing Congress to pass universal health care, Specter needed to get from Harrisburg, his home state's capital, to Capitol Hill. Wintry weather forced the cancellation of flights so he had a five-hour drive and an empty notepad. By the time he reached his office, Specter had dissected Clinton health care in all its complexity -- "I genuinely ran out of paper," he recalled -- and passed the pad off to an intern. The result: a red-and-blue chart illustrating the Clinton plan as an unnavigable bureaucratic labyrinth. "If a picture is worth a thousand words, a chart is worth more than a hundred agencies," Specter said at the time.
The White House denounced the Specter chart as akin to the New York subway map. Still, it became a graphic icon that did the plan in. "It lured us into a discussion and a very detailed explanation of our plan rather than a continuing comparison between our reforms and the status quo," longtime Clinton political strategist Paul Begala said.
Now, a decade and a half later, the tables have turned. "I've been working hard to structure legislation with a robust public option," said Specter, who insists he never opposed universal health care, only the unwieldy implementation of the Clinton plan. Obama's version, even with its many details undecided, is less bureaucratic, in Specter's estimation, and therefore more workable.
Through his cancer treatments and his 1998 cardiac bypass surgery, Specter got to know hospitals -- the bureaucracy, the expense, the life-or-death dread. He received what he calls the best care, courtesy of the federal plan he pays into, but only after learning to be his own advocate. Asked in an interview to elaborate on his medical challenges and how they shape his policy views, Specter said that his desire for universal care predates his personal problems -- period. Asked again a short time later, Specter shot back, "I already answered that question eight minutes ago." Four days later, having apparently reconsidered whether to discuss his medical traumas, the senator described, in a phone interview, much of what he underwent under doctors' care.
On July 11, 1993, Specter felt pain running down the side of his head and went to Bethesda naval hospital for an MRI. "The doctors said I didn't need one," but he insisted on it. "I didn't know what the hell was happening to me." The test showed that Specter had a tumor between his brain and his skull the size of a golf ball, and the chief neurosurgeon told Specter that he had three to six weeks to live -- but to go celebrate his wedding anniversary as planned in Washington, Va.
"I looked at this guy and I thought to myself, 'this guy is crazy,' " Specter said, recalling how he caught the next train to Philadelphia and immediately underwent surgery.
Five years later, the senator had another major surgery, this time a coronary bypass. One night, the surgeons accidentally got water in his lungs and he was "code blue," Specter said. His wife rushed to the hospital that night and doctors told her he would not see the next morning. "They had my heart on the table beside me," Specter said. Again, the senator survived.
"I'm Exhibit A of what medical science has done," Specter told one town-hall crowd. And for years, Specter devoted himself to the National Institutes of Health, always looking for ways to boost its research budget. The NIH "is the crown jewel of the federal government," he said over and over again, "maybe the only jewel."
Specter's morning exercise regimen has kept him in remarkably good shape for a man his age, and he often boasts about his squash victories and weight-lifting prowess. He has a clean bill of health, his aides said. But at an age when most senior senators can coast a bit, Specter must demonstrate that he's not walking into a sunset. And that walk is hardly brisk. At times, during a demanding week, he appeared exhausted and irritable. At other times, he recycled a joke about his physical condition to lighten otherwise tense moments.
"When I had Hodgkin's, I lost all my hair," Specter said at one town hall. "I got a lot more mail on my hairstyle than on my public policy decisions. Some people said I should wear a toupee. Other people said I should shave my head, become a sex symbol."
The audience laughed each time, leading into the senator's deadpan: "Excuse me, what's so funny about that?"Modern Medicine, Exhibit B
In Sestak, Pennsylvania Democrats would get a younger candidate -- the gray-haired challenger is 57 -- but also more of an open book regarding his family's medical trials. His daughter's disease and eventual cure convinced him to run for Congress in 2006. "This is the issue I got in for, the payback," Sestak said in an interview at his campaign headquarters in Media, a Philadelphia suburb.
But Sestak is tough on Specter, chiding his opponent for votes as a Republican and even bringing up that old Hillarycare chart. "He hangs in his office, with pride, a trophy: that poster board," Sestak said. "Arlen took that poster around and derailed it, and since then, 10 million Americans lost their health insurance who were on private health care. And that's wrong. We have to change that."
Now 8, Alexandra Sestak is healthy and thriving, and her colorful artwork decorates her father's offices. He gets emotional talking about her. "One more year and there's a 95 percent chance she's gonna make it all the way -- and usually about 20 percent of the kids with her type of tumor make it," Sestak said, his voice quieting as he leaned across a small conference table. "My daughter, there she is, during the first campaign, you can kind of see her hair just starting to grow back," he said, pointing to a photograph.
"You have to meet my daughter," the proud father said. "She's something."
Specter puts few of his emotions on display, not even anger. The gantlet of town halls was harsh -- even demeaning -- but Snarlin' Arlen kept his nostrils unflared. At Penn State, one woman foisted on him a copy of the Constitution. "I have a copy of the Constitution, but I'm always glad to get another," said Specter, who has questioned every U.S. Supreme Court nominee since William H. Rehnquist.
"Read it!" some attendees fired back at a man who won prizes at Yale Law School for his facility with the law. "Read it!"
Specter's forum in Lebanon -- where a burly, white-bearded man was escorted out by police after staring down the senator and accusing him of trampling on his constitutional rights -- was aired live on all three major cable news networks. And that flash of Specter steel prompted some of the senator's new compatriots to ring in with support. Rendell, who had been watching the televised mayhem from Harrisburg, called to check on his old friend.
"You realize who was in that room?" Rendell said to Specter. "Arlen, I don't think there was any Democrat in that room."
"Oh," Specter said. "You forgot me."