Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Book Review: Life Among the Cannibals

Life Among the Cannibals:  A Political Career, A Tea Party Uprising, And The End Of Governing As We Know It, by Arlen Specter, with Charles Robbins.  NY:  Thomas Dunne Books, 2012

This is not light reading.  It is not a beach book or an airplane book, but if you can devote some time to thoughtful reading, in chunks (because it’s too much to take in all at once), this is an excellent book.  The holidays are coming and anyone on your gift list who enjoys politics would appreciate this title.

Specter doesn’t pussyfoot.  If he is describing a situation or event he provides names.  There are footnotes so you can follow up on some things if you wish.  I admire the senator for being so forthright and giving us some insights into government and campaigning.

This post is divided into a chapter by chapter recap of the book followed by some personal observations. 

Specter sets the tone of the book right at the start.   He begins with the primary election in 2010, when he is facing Joe Sestak in a fight to be the Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania senate.  Specter has changed parties after decades in the Senate as a Republican.  He talks about the change in the Senate, how vitriolic it has become.  Readers get a first hint of the details to come, when Specter writes about local reporters and media personalities by name, Mike Smerconish, among them, and political consultants, like Neil Oxman.  Specter recounts his election day tradition of buying a new tie to wear.  The chapter ends with him awaiting election results.

Then we go back for a quick biography.  His upbringing in Kansas, first job as a bike messenger, two years in the Air Force.  Specter was the first Jew hired at a Philadelphia “white shoe” law firm.  His work on a law case involving the Teamsters leads to his involvement on the JFK commission.  Philadelphia Republican boss Billy Meehan financed his early campaigns.  In 1980 he was elected to the Senate.  A lot happens in this chapter but much of it has been told in other books.  This is just a quick recap.

Specter devotes a chapter to telling stories about Senate life, opening with a 2008 moment when Ted Kennedy joins him in the whirlpool at the Senate gym.  There are several gym stories, as well as some off color jokes.  There are also tales of bipartisanship past and compromises on legislation.  Specter took Amtrak to and from DC and there are several train related stories as well.  He writes about Ed Rendell and former congressman Bob Edgar.  Several pages are devoted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.  A lot of action is packed into this chapter, with a lot of Pennsylvania political gossip and angles. 

In 2004 Specter was the only incumbent Senator to be primaried.  Pat Toomey ran against him, backed by the Club for Growth, an organization Specter says wanted to defeat him as a show of strength.  President Bush and then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger both campaigned for him.  Afterward some of the women at the Schwarzenegger event complained that the movie star turned politician had pinched their bottoms.  Specter says Richard Mellon Scaife, Pittsburgh Tribune Review owner and publisher backed Toomey and goes into some detail on this.  It was a close election but Specter prevailed.

More Senate tales follow, primarily involving the Judiciary Committee and judicial nominations.   A significant part of this chapter is devoted to the “nuclear option,” the possibility of changing the Senate rules to allow for a simple majority instead of the standard 60 votes needed to vote on judicial nominees.  It never came to a vote but Specter reveals that he would have voted against it.

Ah, and then a chapter devoted to scandals.  Specter supported Sen. Larry Craig when he was accused of lewd behavior.  He said it reminded him of a blackmailing scheme in Philadelphia in the mid-1960s.  Gay men were threatened with prosecution and then a magistrate would offer to delay or halt the case if the accused would pay up.   Other scandals mentioned involved Senators Ted Stevens, John Tower, Bob Packwood, and David Durenberger. 

On to the 2008 stimulus.  This is a juicy chapter, juicier than the previous scandals.   Specter writes about racial politics in Philadelphia, about his relationship with Harry Reid, memories of Andrea Mitchell as a Philadelphia reporter, sitting knee to knee with Sarah Palin on a campaign bus, and the irony of then Congresswoman Marjorie Margolis Mezvinsky agreeing to be the pivotal vote for then President Clinton’s tax proposal in return for his firstborn.  (Chelsea Clinton married Margolis’s son.)   There are even mentions of Bucks County political powerhouse Harry Fawkes.   Specter voted for the stimulus, knowing it would affect his career.

And so the party switch.  After voting for the stimulus Specter knew he could not win as a Republican.  He claims that Harry Reid, the Democratic Majority Leader in the Senate promised him his seniority would transfer and he could keep his committee assignments but apparently Reid had not okayed this with the Democratic Senators and they nixed the idea.  Reid did not keep his promise.  Specter also writes about the human toll of his party switch.  The Republican staffers assigned to his committee work could not be employed by a Democrat.  His office staff had to decide whether to stay, and risk being hired by other Republicans in the future, or leave in search of another job.  He says he made a mistake by calling some Democrats who were planning to run for Senate, such as Joe Torsella, but not calling Joe Sestak. 

Next is the Tea Party and health care reform chapter.   Specter writes about contentious townhall meetings.   At one in particular he notes a woman who had moved here from Brazil in 1986 complaining about America being a land of entitlements (p. 240).  [Blogger’s note:  He doesn’t give a name but these details fit Bucks County tea party leader Ana Puig.]  He also says that Joe Sestak only held one townhall meeting (p. 250).  [Blogger’s note:  I’m not sure what time period he is referencing but I attended at least two during the 2009-2010 campaign period.]

Having ticked off the Republicans with his stimulus vote Specter ticks off the Democrats with his opposition to card check.   He prefers the current system of workers wanting to unionize to hold a secret ballot.  Card check would allow union organizers to gather a sufficient number of signatures over time.   Montgomery County Republican power broker Bob Asher tells Specter that card check would devastate his business.   Delaware County labor leaders are on friendly terms with Joe Sestak and Specter is disinvited to a union conference.  The topic is of enough interest that Specter attends senate staff meetings on it, surprising those working on the legislation.

The next chapter concerns the primary election.  A large part of this is, as one might expect, negative towards Sestak.  Specter says that early in the race Sestak was irrelevant and later on that Sestak only had to show he was a viable alternative.  Congressman Bob Brady didn’t endorse Specter early in the race.  Teresa Heinz Kerry won’t host a fundraiser for him.  The Club for Growth took his donor list and mailed all of them suggesting they ask for their donations back; Specter suggests this was illegal.  Sestak suggests someone offers him a job at the national level if he will get out of the race.  Remember the famous ad with Specter saying the party switch was necessary to be re-elected, with the word re-elected said with the accent on the wrong syllable?  Specter says the ad wasn’t very effective.   He writes about the poor choice of words when he told Congresswoman Michelle Bachman to act like a lady.   President Obama won’t come and campaign for him  but Vice President Biden does radio ads. 

Specter circles back to election night, where he had left us at the end of the first chapter.    He gets very granular here, writing about people who were ticked off at not being invited into the “war room” to watch the returns.  He lists the drinks that have been named after him.  Again he goes after Sestak, saying he is upset that in an ad Sestak used a picture of him when he had lost his hair after chemo.   He ends by saying there isn’t a Philadelphia political machine anymore. 

Specter is still a senator though, and a Democratic senator.  The day after the primary Sen. Harry Reid tells him he is needed in Washington for a vote.   His staff and those who have worked for him and those who counted on him for favors would no longer have his ear.   President Obama doesn’t acknowledge him on a trip to Pittsburgh.   When Toomey wins the general election, Sen. Bob Casey takes him to lunch, as Specter had taken Casey to lunch when he was elected.  In case  readers didn’t pick up on it earlier in the book, in this chapter Specter makes it clear he does not care much for Senators Harry Reid and Jim DeMint.

In an epilogue Specter offers his suggestions for a more effective government.  He would like to see open primaries, weekend voting and voter registration via “motor voter.”  He thinks people need to be more involved in the political process.  In the Senate the minority party should be allowed to offer amendments to bills.  He is dismayed by the lack of collegiality in the Senate.  In previous years one senator would not campaign against another incumbent senator, regardless of party.  He thinks the debate on judicial nominees should be cut off at 51 votes and that the separation of powers should be respected.

Personal Observations

Specter is one of the few male politicians who can write about his wife well.  Joan Specter comes across as her own person.  She’s an asset to his campaign, as many political wives are, because he “can’t be all bad if he has a nice wife like that” (2).  He says she is graceful and poised (7) and mentions campaigning for her when she ran for city council (2).  When he loses the election she is “unflappable” (297).  It is definitely Arlen’s book and there isn’t much description of his home or personal life but when Joan appears he writes of her positively without going overboard.    

He has an attention to detail that is phenomenal.  He notices things that not that many other people would.  Unusual for many men, this includes wardrobe descriptions.    Note this passage from p. 149:

The president razzed me for putting on a tie.  I was wearing a navy blazer and a patterned tie over a white shirt with blue windowpane checks, a version of my usual sporting-event attire.  The president’s shirt was like mine but with tighter blue checks.

Or this description of someone who asked a question at a townhall meeting

“a middle-aged blonde in a turquoise top and white pants” (240)

Who notices this things?  And it’s not just clothes.  On page 151 he describes various meetings with presidents over the years, down to what kind of chairs they sat in; he recalls the color of President Clinton’s dog. 

One other thing that struck me was the way Specter’s family absorbed his identity as a Senator.  After the party switch he considered serving out his term and not running for re-election.  Joan tells him on the phone “You are Arlen Specter!  You are a giant in the senate.  You have done so many things.  You are bigger than all of them.” (220).  He even mentions that his granddaughters had wrapped his job into their identity (294).  Perhaps this is normal; I just don’t remember reading about it in other political autobiographies, and it isn’t necessarily something that happens for most average peopl.

Co-author note:  Robbins was Specter's Director of Communications and helped write on the the Senator's earlier books.

No comments: