An End to Expediency
The man was riding high. It was 1967 and he had just come back from what appeared to be a career-advancing period in Washington working for the Warren Commission. He was key to the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald alone had murdered an American president. He was already high profile as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, and he saw a career in politics. But first, he decided to switch from Democrat to Republican. The Democrats, after a reform period lasting more than a decade, had mired into machine politics. And the Republicans had some rising stars. Arlen Specter decided to be one of them. You could call it political expediency.
It worked. He became district attorney and later ran successfully for the U.S. Senate. This was despite the fact that some people thought a terrible cloud had enveloped the Kansas-born man with a midwestern twang. The cloud was also over the Warren Commission as people actually began to read its report and realize it made no sense. Specter himself had stumbled when he was interviewed by Gaeton Fonzi, a longtime contributor to this magazine, and at the time an investigative reporter in Philadelphia. Fonzi had been briefed on all the contradictions in the Warren Commission Report, especially the details of President John F. Kennedy's wounds. To explain them, Specter had come up with the "magic bullet" – that the same bullet had danced a ballet through the bodies of JFK and Texas Gov. John Connally. But when confronted by Fonzi, he could not explain his own theory. Nobody could. It was impossible.
As has been written here before, students of the assassination have concluded that Specter was too good a prosecutor and too smart not to realize his theory was nonsense. But he was under pressure. We know now more important men than himself wanted the case solved, the blame placed on one nut, to discredit those who were murmuring "conspiracy." Three of the commission members, notably Georgia Sen. Richard B. Russell Jr., had serious doubts about the lone gunmen. They did not want to sign the report, and only did so after they thought their doubts, on the record, would be included in the final draft. They were not. That Specter went along with the game, in fact starred in it, could be chalked up to his wish not to be a foul ball at a time when his career was taking off. You might call it political expediency.
Over the years as the Warren Commission has been discredited by many writers, including Fonzi, who wrote in our pages what later became an iconic book on the subject, Arlen Specter continued to get re-elected in Pennsylvania. His reputation suffered surprisingly little damage from the increasing belief that the government had covered up a president's murder. There were a few bad moments, especially Oliver Stone's riveting film "JFK," but for the most part he seemed to be the perpetual survivor. But recently, in a wave of anti-Washington sentiment, he sensed he could not win as a Republican. So he switched back to the Democrats. You could call it political expediency.Or you could simply say he was always more of a Democrat in the first place. Everything seemed fine. He was way ahead in the polls, although his opponent, Rep. Joe Sestak, had impressed people. He was a career Navy man who wound up an admiral. But most voters did not know that.
Then Specter, perhaps thinking it politically expedient, attacked Sestak's military background, which was really pretty impressive. It backfired big time. At a time when young men and women are dying for our country, people did not like it, and many voters suddenly realized this little known had pretty good credentials. Looking closer, they saw a younger candidate they liked, especially in contrast with the crusty old Specter. In one of the great poll reversals of our times, Sestak began closing the gap, and just this week appeared to be five points ahead. With the election a week off, that seemed an insurmountable momentum swing.
Barring something unforeseen, and that would be unforeseen squared, Arlen Specter seems to have run out of expediency.