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Head Strong | Specter practices - and endorses - civility

I have watched Arlen Specter, now Pennsylvania's longest-serving U.S. senator, deliver countless speeches. But never had I seen him talk quite as he did when he addressed 1,000 people Dec. 8.

I have watched Arlen Specter, now Pennsylvania's longest-serving U.S. senator, deliver countless speeches. But never had I seen him talk quite as he did when he addressed 1,000 people Dec. 8.

The setting was the Grand Ballroom of New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, site of the Pennsylvania Society's 109th annual dinner. That is the centerpiece of a weekend during which the Keystone State's political movers and shakers gather in pomp and collegiality.

That night, Specter was the 99th recipient of the Society's Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement, awarded every year since 1908 to a figure of unfailing leadership and wide-ranging contributions. Former awardees include Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush, sports figures Arnold Palmer and Joe Paterno, and media figures Bill Cosby and Chris Matthews.

He began his remarks as he so often does - by taking off his wristwatch, placing it on the lectern, and telling the crowd he wished to "give you a false sense of security that I am paying attention to the time."

He continued by showing some of the humor that recently earned him second place in an annual Washington celebrity comedy contest, complete with references to Bob Dole and Viagra. Having watched his performance on YouTube, I was disappointed he didn't reprise one particular one-liner on Dan Quayle. ("He thought


was two words.")

But then he reached inside his tuxedo pocket and withdrew a few index cards. I knew immediately he had something important to say - and that he wanted to get it just right - because Specter rarely, if ever, speaks from notes. Despite dining with my friend Jack Daniels, I'm glad I had the presence of mind to jot down a few of my own.

This was Specter as Pennsylvania elder statesman, anxious to deliver a message about the need for civility and compromise, not shrillness and contempt. He spoke like an ideological moderate fed up with the left-right extremism too often seen on the split screens of America today. And he thought the future should have more of the camaraderie so evident in New York City that night.

"The importance of courtesy and civility is critical at all levels - international negotiations, national, state and local government. This weekend is exactly the kind of time when we should all reflect on how much we have in common and how much harder we should try to get along."

And then came this key line:

"If you can lift a glass together with your colleague from across the aisle on a Saturday night here in New York, you can lift your pen with that same colleague across the hall on Monday morning in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, or any place in our state."

His introduction had been accompanied by a video presentation that rolled through the stages of his career - from hard-charging district attorney to Warren Commission staffer to unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate. Included in the high-tech scrapbook were images of Specter on the world stage - with Fidel Castro and Yasir Arafat - which prompted a round of guffaws from the audience.

It occurred to me that his office had no doubt supplied those images to underscore his point that we live in times requiring more, not less, dialogue.

That became evident when he praised President Bush for writing a letter to Kim Jong Il that began "Dear Mr. Chairman," calling that greeting of respect a good move as we strive for better relations with North Korea. He cited President Ronald Reagan's successful arms-reduction treaties with the U.S.S.R. even after Reagan had tagged that country the Evil Empire. And he credited diplomacy for the deflation of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's terrorist tendencies.

Sitting on the dais through all of this was Gov. Rendell, himself an actor in Specter's sketch of cooperation. Specter shared a story from his final days as district attorney in Philadelphia. Riding in an elevator in City Hall, a young Ed Rendell told his boss he planned to make a career in public service. Specter offered to introduce the young prosecutor to city Republican leader Billy Meehan, at which point Rendell informed Specter that he was a Democrat. Before that, Specter said, "I did not know - or, for that matter, care - about his political registration."

He also shared a story in which Chief Justice Earl Warren shook the hand of Jack Ruby, already convicted for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. Later, in connection with the work of the Warren Commission, Warren lent Ruby his eyeglasses.

The goal in all these anecdotes, he told me a few days after his speech, was to inspire those in attendance to transport the nonpartisanship evident in the bar rooms of New York to the courtrooms, war rooms and chambers of Pennsylvania.

Tweaking a Barry Goldwater line, Specter told the crowd: "Moderation in the pursuit of virtue is no vice and is the approach which must be extended to our county courthouses, to Harrisburg, to Washington and beyond to international conferences. This is the approach that will ensure that, when you future gold medalists stand in my place on a future second Saturday in December, you can declare, as do I, that we still live in the greatest country in the history of the world."