You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Media Specter

In February Senator Arlen Specter wanted to hold hearings on Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele, and he wasn't going to be deterred by the fact that he is only chairman of the Senate subcommittee on juvenile justice. Strom Thurmond, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, failed to see the connection between the Nazi doctor and teenagers in trouble and had declined to authorize the hearings. But Specter persisted, and Thurmond finally relented. The first two hearings attracted so much media attention that Specter asked Thurmond to allow him to hold a third. When Thurmond adamantly refused. Specter took his show on the road, holding a meeting with Holocaust survivors in Philadelphia. Because Thurmond had refused authorization, the third hearing had no formal connection to the subcommittee, the Judiciary Committee, or the Senate. Nevertheless, Specter declared in his opening statement that the hearings were official subcommittee business, and the press duly reported them as such. "A spokesman for Specter said the Juvenile Justice Subcommittee was involved with the search for Mengele," The Philadelphia Inquirer noted solemnly, "because of the experiments he conducted on children."

Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, is the model of how to build a Senate career through manipulation of the media. Others in the world's greatest deliberative body, such as South Dakota Republican Larry Pressler, have reputations based mostly on press releases. But Specter brings new and impressive audacity to senatorial hype. He is an intelligent freshman senator with moderate political instincts who has received an unprecedented amount of highly favorable media coverage. And if the justifications for the publicity are dubious, the benefits are worthwhile. After the Mengele hearings, Jewish groups in Miami and Los Angeles held fund-raisers for Specter's 1986 reelection campaign, raising tens of thousands of dollars.

Specter's political career began in 1965 when he ran for district attorney and won, the first time in more than two decades that a Republican had won citywide office in Philadelphia. Hardly a day went by during Specter's stint in which he didn't hold a news conference, announce some new investigation, or release a statement to the press. William Meehan, a close friend of the senator and the longtime head of Philadelphia's Republican Party, said, "Someone spills a can of beans, Arlen'll issue a statement."

Specter realized that he could make headlines by announcing some new, sensational investigation or the formation of a new grand jury, and that few reporters would ever take him to task if those same investigations uncovered no wrongdoing or produced no indictments. After the roof of the Spectrum, Philadelphia's sports arena, blew off in a rainstorm in 1968, Specter announced he was going "to blow the lid off City Hall" in an investigation of who was responsible. He received dozens of favorable stories. "The Daily News has learned that District Attorney Arlen Specter may be on the verge of making 'Big Arrests' in connection with his investigation of…the $12 million arena," reported the Philadelphia Daily News, which often received such "exclusives" from Specter. Only one individual, a minor City Hall functionary, was ever indicted, and charges against him were eventually dismissed.

One rare critical story about Specter appeared in 1973, when The Philadelphia Inquirer conducted a detailed study of Philadelphia's criminal justice system that compared Specter's performance with his rhetoric. Specter had received glowing coverage for personally prosecuting a rape case in his first term and for his numerous press conferences on rape. "Rape Terms Too Light, Says Specter" and "10 Rape Trials Planned Daily to Cut Backlog" were typical of the headlines he won. The Inquirer found that, despite his tough talk on criminals and on lenient judges, "Specter…posted one of the poorest conviction rates in the nation. In fact, it may very well be the worst. …Specter's office is as responsible as judges for the lenient treatment of many defendants." The story reported that, especially in rape cases, too often "the charges [were] dismissed, the defendants found innocent--often because of faulty investigations or trial delays."

Specter ran for mayor in 1969 and narrowly lost. He ran for a third term as district attorney in 1973 and lost. In 1976 he lost the Republican senatorial primary, and in 1978 he lost the gubernatorial primary. Only in 1980 did he win the Senate seat.

When Specter came to Washington, he shrewdly began a campaign to change his image, if not his performance, as a limelight hog. "He knew he had a problem in this area," says an aide; "so we were told then whenever interviewed by the press we were to hammer away again and again as to what a low-key, behind-the-scenes type of job he was doing. We were told to be as subtle as possible." Specter told me he was "proceeding in a slow and methodical way to learn a new job. …I read a lot of biographies of a lot of senators and it did take some time to learn the protocol. I would say there's a significant difference in the approach I have in Washington in contrast with being a DA in Philadelphia." The gangbusters prosecutor image was replaced with the persona of the thoughtful senator.

The media have bought the "new Arlen Specter." The Philadelphia Bulletin said Specter devoted his "first eight months [in office] to reading histories of the Senate, listening, asking questions, and learning." The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that, although Specter had once courted the press, as a senator he was "low-key, more evenly modulated." The Washington Post described Specter as a "brainy, intense, rumpled lawyer and former district attorney. He brings great intensity to his issues as well as his campaigning."

Specter now has the best of both worlds. His new reputation in no way hinders his old penchant for showboating. He has been shrewd in his selection of witnesses at hearings: former porn star Linda Lovelace, the jurors who passed judgment on John Hinckley and on Cathleen Webb, even Captain Kangaroo (who criticized violence on TV), have all testified. One result has been that his subcommittee has received even more press coverage than its parent Judiciary Committee. "There's the big four," explains a former aide to Specter. "The four major subjects that Specter knows will rope in the television cameras: kids, sex, drugs, and violence. If you can have a hearing that combines two or more of those elements, you'll get even greater coverage."

Among the hearings Specter has chaired: news coverage of the Bedford rape case (sex and violence); the Gary Dotson-Cathleen Webb rape recantation case (sex and violence); the Hinckley insanity plea (violence); teenage suicide (drugs, kids, and violence); violence on television (kids and violence); and the sexual abuse of teenage runaways (sex, violence, and kids). "The subjects he chooses often are not even the remotest bit related to anything to do with juvenile justice," says a senior aide on the Judiciary Committee, "He leaves it up to his poor staff to come up with some supposed connection. When he held a hearing with Cathleen Webb, he told us the relevance was that the incident occurred while she was still a minor." Specter's hearings on the effect of pornography on women and children was an adroit combination of all four elements. The star witness was Linda Lovelace, first made famous for her role in Deep Throat, who told the committee that her boyfriend had forced her into pornography and prostitution with a semiautomatic M-16 machine gun. Specter invited two of the pornography industry's biggest stars, Veronica Vera and "Seka," to respond to Lovelace's charges, "I have been a part of the adult film industry for eight years. . , ," Seka told Specter. "During this time…I have never known anyone who was coerced, forced, or otherwise compelled to do anything against their will." Vera added: "It is real movie-making. There is feeling of camaraderie and pride."

Vera read her statement from a prepared text. "I am the love toy, the object of your desires, exposed and vulnerable," Vera explained. "Picture yourself tying the ropes, keeping me as your prisoner, to be taken whenever you want, always open to--" She paused.

"Should I go on?" she asked.

Specter, who had a copy of her text in front of him, replied, "You certainly may," The long and explicit description of intercourse, bondage, and sadomasochism that followed had little do with juvenile justice. The television cameras recorded the scene in full.

Specter's antics finally prompted Illinois Democrat Paul Simon to violate Senate etiquette by publicly criticizing his colleague. In April Simon denounced Specter's plans to hold hearings on the Dotson-Webb case. "This subcommittee has no role in addressing guilt or innocence, or justification for trying to influence a state judicial matter…We should not allow the potential for a few headlines and 30 seconds on television to divert our attention from our real problems," A Specter spokesman says Specter met with Simon after the statement and that Simon was "satisfied with the scope of the hearings," Simon says he stands by his criticism.

As a moderate Republican from the Northeast, Specter can be a swing vote in legislative battles between the administration and the Democrats, During the MX debate earlier this year, a low level White House aide mentioned in a tip to The New York Times that President Reagan would not help to raise money for any Republican senator who voted against the missile's funding. For the next several weeks Specter did not disclose how he was going to vote. The night before the vote, television crews camped out in front of his condominium to wait for his decision. Specter played Hamlet again in May when it became clear that his would be the crucial vote in the Judiciary Committee on the confirmation of William Bradford Reynolds, He ultimately voted against Reynolds, killing the nomination.

Specter continues to push hard for any media opportunity. This spring Pennsylvania Democratic representative Tom Foglietta spent weeks arranging a press conference to denounce the Pentagon's closing of the Philadelphia Naval Yard, Specter announced his own plans at the last minute and scheduled a press conference at the Yard one hour before Foglietta was to appear. More than one member of the congressional Vietnam Era Veterans Caucus was taken aback when Specter applied for membership; he served in Korea but was not in the service during the Vietnam War. He was turned down. (His Democratic opponent in 1986, incidentally, may well be Pennsylvania state auditor Don Bailey, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran.)

Friends and associates often privately lament that Specter does not apply his intelligence more constructively. The Almanac of American Politics rates him "competent" and his work for the District of Columbia subcommittee is an improvement over his predecessors'. But overall. Specter's legislative record is undistinguished. After the TWA hijacking. Specter introduced legislation making it legal for the United States to abduct terrorists abroad and bring them here to stand trial. A State Department official calls the legislation "downright silly." As the department's legal adviser noted in a tart reference to Specter, "Arresting someone in Lebanon is not the same as arresting someone in Philadelphia." In April Specter canceled hearings on an obscure proposed Justice Department regulation that would allow "secured staff detention" of juveniles. It is a controversial proposal that critics say amounts to unconstitutional preventive detention and would affect thousands of young people. Unfortunately, it is also a surefire dud with the press. Specter canceled the session and held the Webb-Dotson hearings instead.

The emphasis of style over substance might be most disturbing to those who were prompted by the Mengele hearings to contribute to Specter's reelection campaign. Last year, in an apparent effort to court Pennsylvania's large Ukrainian community. Specter championed the case of Fyodor Federenko, a Ukrainian who was a guard at Treblinka, The Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations has contended for eight years that Federenko was a Nazi war criminal. In 1983 the U.S. Immigration Court, relying on eyewitness testimony of Holocaust survivors, found that Federenko had "assisted in the thousands of murders" at Treblinka, and ordered him deported. Specter helped Federenko fight the order. For four months in late 1984 Specter's administrative assistant Paul Michel and another Specter aide called the special investigations office at least five times protesting Federenko's deportation. In December the calls on behalf of the former Nazi suddenly stopped. Why? An angry Justice Department official had called Specter's office and threatened to inform the press.

Murray Waas, a native of Philadelphia, is a writer based in Washington.

By Murray Waas