Buh-bye, Snarlin' Arlen

I spent nearly seven years as a constituent of Arlen Specter, and for me, this was the defining moment in his seemingly endless tenure in the U.S. Senate:

Does anyone else remember that awesome year of 1991, when we were schooled by the Senate Judiciary Committee that an obscure Oklahoma law professor was Public Enemy Number One, and surely a great danger to the republic?  I sure do.  I was in a graduate seminar in which the professor asked at the end of the semester if the Clarence Thomas nomination hearings would be something we’d be lecturing about in our American history courses 20 years hence.  Many of my classmates said “yes,” and one even reported that he was taking notes for future lectures at that moment.  I disagreed, probably because I naively approached the question as meaning, “will this change anything for women who experience sexual harassment at work?” 

Well, don’t let the door hit you on the way out, ArlenScumbag.  But let’s not let the Democrats off the hook.  (If you recall, Snarlin’ Arlen was a Republican back in 1991).  In the Thomas hearings, Joe Biden was a fatuous disgrace, and Ted Kennedy a complete coward.  Maybe that was understandable:  after all, if he hadn’t have had to testify at his nephew’s rape trial earlier that year about running around without his pants on, he would have been just a wee bit more effective.

0 thoughts on “Buh-bye, Snarlin' Arlen

  1. Oh, we remember 1991, vividly, and we join you in bidding Snarlin’ Arlen a fond (not!) farewell. It remains to be seen, though, what will become of Sestak once the Dems get hold of him. Progressive or Fauxgressive? Leader or follower? Gutsy or gutLESS? I’m not holding my breath, girlfriend. How ’bout you?


  2. Yes, I remember 1991 very very well… Several times I’ve taught the excellent collection of feminist essays that Toni Morrison edited about it. (In my office, so can’t find the title.) As they say, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, except maybe Joe Lieberman…


  3. Specter, as DA, prosecuted me and about 20 others for taking part in an antiwar demo, Philadelphia summer 1967–we were defying an ancient city law under which the mayor (anybody remember James H.J. Tate?) decreed any group of more than three people an unlawful assembly. In a wildly misjudged bid to make a name as a law n’ order kind of guy, he argued the case himself instead of handing it off to an assistant. When we walked–as of course we did–he looked unprincipled, for trying to enforce an obviously unconstitutional law, and inept, for failing.


  4. It was a delight to vote against him yesterday morning. Why, think of it, PA may finally have a Democratic Senator who isn’t responsible for ushering Thomas, Roberts, and Alito into the Supreme Court, or isn’t the anti-choice son of Casey in “Casey v. Planned Parenthood.” What a lovely day that will be if it comes to pass.


  5. Heh. Great story, rootlesscosmo. Andrew, thanks for the inside-PA perspective. Sestak will surely need to pivot rightwards selectively in order to keep enough Western Pennsylvanians on his bandwagon, but it will be nice to see the commonwealth represented by other than the likes of Specter or the anti-abortion nuts of both parties (Casey and Santorum).

    Susan: I used to own the book you mentioned is Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power. It is a wonderful collection–I bought it as soon as it appeared in bookstores, and it really helped me make sense of the ritual humiliation of Anita Hill that we had just seen.

    And Roxie: no predictions, just “hope” from this side of the Mississippi. Although I “hope” Sestak will avoid fauxgressivism, I think it’s a good thing to rattle the old pols by reminding them that they too can be booted out unceremoniously. After all: I’m hoping that our never-elected Colorado U.S. Senator (D-St. Albans, Wesleyan, and Yale) will remain never elected.


  6. Precious few of any political stripe are mourning the political death of “Benedict Arlen, the Rat that Joined the Sinking Ship”, to mix the most common metaphors I have been hearing here in Northeast PA.


  7. As a follow-up, I think that while Sestak needs to throw a few bones to rural voters to prevent them mobilizing against him, what he really needs to do is pump up Democratic turnout in southeastern PA. I voted at noon yesterday in a heavily Democratic precinct of South Philly and was number fifty-four. That’s weak turnout, even for a mid-term primary, seeing as this has been a well-publicized race with national media coverage. If Sestak helps pass DADT and takes a strong pro-Union stand, it’s help boost his Democratic turnout, which will be key to holding more seats in November. Also, Ed Rendell needs to stop being a horse’s ass.


  8. “Also, Ed Rendell needs to stop being a horse’s ass.

    Yes–well, when exactly would that not be helpful? He’s enough of a pol that I’m sure you’ll see pictures of his big, grinning puss hugging and kissing Joe Sestak plastered all over the Inky pretty soon.

    I agree with you that in Pennsylvania the unions will either save or bury Sestak. I think he gets that, from what I’ve seen of him. If he keeps the unions and follows your advice on turnout in Philadelphia and environs, he won’t even have to make any rightward feints–he can win it fair & square. (The Pennsylvania union guys are the reason Obama fared so poorly in the 2008 primaries, IIRC.)


  9. Great story, rootless! I do remember “Jimbo” Tate, but only as a name on the radio in the morning, as I was a kid growing up in the outer exurbs then. So there was a pre-history to the “Rizzo Years of Terror,” which I got to see firsthand? I occasionally live, and occasionally vote, in both ends of this fine Commonwealth, and I’m not sure whether I see Sestak carrying enough votes in the West to overcome the historical animosity against the Philly end (cf. Whiskey Rebellion, et. seq.). As far as energizing the Inner Burbs of Philadelphia, we’ll see. The falloff from Hillary in April ’08 to Obama that fall to this coming fall may be considerable. What were the turnout numbers in his district in Delaware County? I don’t have much read on the guy–just somebody the recruitment team recruited in 2006.

    We/they did keep the Murtha brand alive in the 12th district, for better and/or for worser.


  10. GayProf–what do you say about the Hill-Thomas hearings? I’m curious. I certainly don’t think they changed anything for the better. The Robert Bork hearnings were more of a turning point in Supreme Court “Advise & Consent” history.

    It’s still completely revolting to see so many older white men lined up to interrogate a young black woman about her “sexual fantasies.” I suppose it would make a nice bookend to discussions about the objectification of black women’s bodies in slavery and freedom throughout U.S. history–a little something to indicate that not all history is about progress and change and truth and justice for all. A lot of it is about ancient prejudices that are thoroughly resistant to change.


  11. I don’t think that I say anything particularly original about them. Usually I frame them as being a moment that exposed continuing anxieties about the intersections of of race, gender, and sexuality in the nation. We also talk about how race and gender figured into efforts to discredit Hill and her supporters (Including Thomas’s famous claim to be the “real” victim of a “high tech lynching.”). We then spend some time putting them into the context of other major incidents from the same time period (like the Tailhook Scandal (1991)) in which the nation started grappling with the notion of sexual harassment in the workplace. We tend to forget (because Thomas was appointed), but Hill did usher in a deeper awareness about the definition of hostile work environment.

    As a side note, very few of my students are ever aware of the Hill-Thomas hearings or their meanings before we discuss them in class.


  12. Well, that’s reason enough for bringing them up! Today’s college students were toddlers or preschoolers in 1991, so I’m sure they were oblivious at the time. (Or, let’s hope so.)

    Perhaps you’re right about the definition of hostile work environment shifting in people’s minds. It’s a pretty jaw-dropping moment in the video above when Anita Hill has to insist that being repeatedly and incessantly asked on dates by a boss is in fact sexual harassment, when Specter clearly thinks that sexual harassment doesn’t happen unless or until someone makes an explicit request for a sex act.

    Another thing that strikes me now that I’m older than Hill was in 1991: she looks so young and vulnerable, whereas when I was 23, she looked very cool and as much in charge as she could be expected to be. (I think she was 35 at the time of the hearings–she looks like a very youthful 35 to me, probably because her skin is so gorgeous.)


  13. A Shakespeare professor I know told me he used to used the Hill-Thomas hearings as part of his introductory class, because there was a lot of Othello-like rhetoric floating around them. He’s had to stop doing it, though, because most of the students no longer know much/enough about them–most of this past year’s freshmen were born in 1991–so a lack of knowledge of the incident is getting pretty widespread.


  14. Ummm…most of my students were toddlers in 1991. But some of my freshman were not even with us then. Which is vaguely frightening.

    Arlen Specter is also a co-creator of the “magic bullet” theory, having worked with the Warren Commission. I’m astonished by how much cynicism he managed to pack into a single career.


  15. @Indyanna:

    So there was a pre-history to the “Rizzo Years of Terror,” which I got to see firsthand?

    He was Police Chief in ’67. Tate’s proclamation came after major riots that summer in Detroit and Newark NJ, the idea being that he and Rizzo together would head off anything similar in Philly. Rizzo used to entertain reporters during recesses in our trial by demonstrating how he stomped arrestees with his (as I recall) Size 13 shoes. Another bit of trivia: Rizzo had a kind of mini-me, Lt. Donald Fencl, in charge of the Red Squad–I think it was still called that–which monitored our one-hour silent vigil across from the Cathedral and then busted us. This gave our lawyers a nice opportunity to elicit testimony from arresting officers, since the mayor’s proclamation made reference to “riotous and tumultuous” conduct. The issues were serious but the post-arrest shenanigans, I have to admit, were a hoot.


  16. I was going to ask about Fencl, but I couldn’t remember his name. If he was a Rizzo clone in ’67 (unless it was a brother–the guy I’m thinking about was Insp. George Fencl), he must have made a u-turn after that. Because when I got to town Fencl was seen by the protest community as the only good cop on the Rizzo squad. There was a big mob-up at Independence Plaza in the spring of ’71 and when some shoving broke out I remember this old white-haired ACLU civil libertarian (name also escapes me) grabbing the microphone and shouting out repeatedly “Is George Fencl here? Is George Fencl here?” because he was seen as the only guy on the blue team [although he was a non-uniformed inspector] who would be trusted by the demonstrators. Can’t remember how that episode turned out. But there’s even an annual Fencl citizenship award in Philly now, and the always tough on bad guys, Chuck Stone, I think got it started.

    This was a crazy town back when Rizzo’s police cars were painted red!


  17. unless it was a brother–the guy I’m thinking about was Insp. George Fencl

    I would take my oath the guy commanding the cops who busted us was Donald and his rank was Lieutenant, but among historians I know better than to defend the reliability of memory, especially at 43 years’ distance.

    Was the ACLU guy Spencer Cox?

    (Sorry to stray so far off-thread, Historiann.)


  18. I was in high school during the Thomas confirmation hearings and I remember being shocked that behavior that would have most likely gotten you detention at my high school was apparently okay in a Supreme Court Justice. It was the beginning of learning what a privileged isolated existence I had led.


  19. It *was* Spencer Coxe! I can see him now, with that mike. As for “Donald,” Philadelphia has had hundreds of multi-brother police families, so it could have been.

    Me sorry too, Historiann. Sort of a sidebar, yr honor! 🙂


  20. after all, if he hadn’t have had to testify at his nephew’s rape trial earlier that year about running around without his pants on, he would have been just a wee bit more effective.

    Which wouldn’t have stopped any Republicans from effectively attacking somebody else for their unethical behavior. Hell, the Republicans tried to impeach Bill Clinton for getting blow jobs, and I didn’t notice any of them being the slightest bit reticent because they lived in glass houses.

    Whatever reason Kennedy didn’t support Anita Hill, I doubt it was embarassment over helping to get his nephew off on a rape charge.


  21. The lynching of Anita Hill was one of the most despicable political events I have watch until it happened. Sadly, lynching, mainly by Republican and in some cases by “liberal,” goes on. Bill Clinton was mentioned above. He wasn’t lynched for a blow job, he was lynched by the Republicans, the media and many “liberal” because he was a Democrat and a centrist one. Gore and Obama also went through the gauntlet.

    There are plenty victims and an abundance of culprits.


  22. When Anita Hill was on, I was disgusted at the way she was attacked. I could barely discern who was Democrat and who was Republican, they were all so heinous.

    I was terrified – jeez, was it only two years later? — two years later when I was sexually harassed because of the way that she was grilled. I was deathly afraid that, if I said anything about the guy, a similar thing would happen to me. The good thing about the hearings was that it seemed to bring that sort of behavior into the public consciousness as something bad. The bad thing was that the knee-jerk reaction was always to somehow blame the woman (imagine that!). My institution in particular seemed more aware of sexual harassment, but that only served to heighten their vigiliance in order to create policies that would absolve the university from any responsibility.

    Today, the students who seem to know about Anita Hill are either old enough to remember or are black women. Unfortunately, some of the younger ones were indoctrinated into the trope of Clarence Thomas as an “acheiver” and therefore to be admired, with Anita Hill’s testimony being dismissed as frivolous. One student even assumed that she was a white woman. This is what they have learned in grade school.


  23. “My institution in particular seemed more aware of sexual harassment, but that only served to heighten their vigiliance in order to create policies that would absolve the university from any responsibility.”

    I think THIS is the lesson that was learned back in ’91. Not that it’s wrong to harass or abuse subordinates and/or women, but that institutions need to indemnify themselves. So long as everyone completes their “sexual harassment training” course or workshop, then it’s all good. Administrators will not intervene to protect subordinates.


  24. Well, as an individual at least I learned from the episode, and I still do watching this tape; Hill was clearer on it than I am many days.

    Administrators may not intervene to protect subordinates, but they will use sexual harassment complaints at their convenience to go after their enemies, just as they do corruption charges.

    There’s a harasser in my workplace now and my tendency has been to allege to myself that it’s not all that bad. Watching Hill here, I’m less convinced of that.


  25. Today, I went to the beach with my kids. I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put the shell to her ear
    and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched
    her ear. She never wants to go back! LoL I know
    this is completely off topic but I had to tell someone!


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