Arlen Specter, who died last Sunday, served more than 30 years in the Senate and was a friend of mine. Politicians make a sport of having “friends,” but Arlen was my friend because of a sport. We both played squash together for a number of years.
When I moved to Washington, D.C., to work on the Hill in late 1984, I joined a squash club near the Rayburn Building and it was there that I first met Arlen. He was playing Sen. Bob Packwood, another frequent partner. Arlen wore a glass hockey mask when he played Packwood, who earlier broke Specter’s nose and part of his jaw with a mighty swing of his racquet. Injury was just part of the sport and it didn’t stop Arlen.
Not much stopped Specter. He was a Republican from Pennsylvania at the time – more than 40 years in all – and I worked for a Democratic congressman. But it didn’t hinder our friendship.
One time, after we had a mid-game conversation about life in general, he said, “How about coming to work for me, Mike?”
“I’m a Democrat, Arlen, and a Catholic. We don’t have similar views on a lot of issues,” I reminded him.
“So what?” he said. “Do you know what it’s like, working in an office where everybody is under 35?”
Of course I knew what he meant. Washington is a place where the youth culture is part of the game. Lots of energy is required to run governmental offices, and young staffers are an essential part of the picture.
I wasn’t any great shakes as a staffer that he should defer to me. But it was the kind of interrogatory that I came to expect from a Jewish man born in Kansas of a father who emigrated from Russia. Arlen had been around the block.
But I think the other element in Arlen’s asking about my coming to work for him was simply that his lawyer’s mind needed, required, opposing perspectives to sharpen his own views of issues that touched on morality, which is to say, everything. He possessed a great openness to life in general.
Over the years, Specter had sessions each week with like-minded people on the Hill who had an interest in religion.
When the Waco siege began on Feb. 28, 1993, and ended 50 days later with 76 men, women and children killed, Arlen called me and asked if I could give a briefing for his Senate staff, as I had been involved in a small way to resolve things as acting deputy assistant secretary for enforcement at Treasury.
Arlen was always looking for solutions and closure in life. In a squash game, he wanted to win, but he knew it took second place to trying to resolve what happened off the court in the bigger game of life.
Michael D. Langan is a retired Treasury enforcement official who served as a senior expert with the United Nations dealing with Taliban and al-Qaida issues.