Face-to-Face With a Subject

In February, my monthly legal ethics course for the D.C. Bar had a surprising attendee: former Senator Arlen Specter. I didn’t realize he was among the attendees until the break, when he walked up to me, looking like the photo of him I had placed in a PowerPoint presentation the very night before. He had a big smile, and barely gave me a chance to blurt out, “Hello, Senator,” before he grabbed my hand in a steel grip, pumped it, looked directly into my eyes, said, “Good job!” and slapped me enthusiastically on the back.

Nice guy. Damn.

It was a brief encounter, but it was enough to make me feel differently about Specter, who has been a favorite target of mine in the past. Viscerally, I liked him now: he didn’t have to do that; I speak to about 350 lawyers in those sessions, and I’ll get a direct compliment from two or three a month. He was no longer an abstract target, like most of the people I criticize.

If that encounter had taken place before Specter had switched parties as his best shot to keep his Senate seat, would I have written as scathing a critique of his integrity? I sure hope so, but I wonder. It is much easier to be objective about strangers than people you have had a positive experience with. In evaluating their ethical conduct, it shouldn’t matter that Specter, or Hillary Clinton, or Nancy Pelosi, or Al Gore are, from everything I have heard from those who know them, funny, engaging and kind.

This is why we should raise a metaphorical eyebrow when we hear about, for example, the White House press corps partying with the First Family, as occurred a few months ago. President Obama is also a nice guy. And when you have to sit down and assess what a President or a senator has done, you shouldn’t be thinking about what a nice guy your subject is, or worrying about hurting the feelings of someone who was nice to you.

Now I’m just hoping Senator Specter doesn’t do anything that brings him into my ethics microscope’s view. If I go easy on him, I’ll wonder if it’s because of fairness, or the handshake; if I am tough, I might be overcompensating for bais, which is not fair.

No doubt about it: Arlen was a better topic when he was just a picture in my photo files.

11 thoughts on “Face-to-Face With a Subject

  1. When it comes to Arlen Specter, I have three words: MAGIC BULLET THEORY. He may not have been directly or indirectly involved in the assassination of President Kennedy but we was most definitely involved in covering up the truth. Can’t get into a much bigger ethical faux pas than that…

    • You’ll have to seek out blakeart ( or Oliver Stone–blakeart is more ethical by far) for support on that one. I’m a Kennedy Assassination buff from wayback—even the Lincoln Conspiracy theories make more sense than the mulitple gunman theory. The Warren Commissionwas sloppy, but the next one did OK.Specter is aces with me on his role in clearing Sam Giancana, Fidel, Lyndon Johnson and Secretary Stanton.

  2. Knew Senator Specter when he was Our DA in Philadelphia and I was a Police Officer with the Department. Never saw him try a case but as a Police Officer, somewhat critical of lawyers, most of Our Department thought well of Mr. Specter.There was one instance, in which We Police thought that Mr. Specter used superior judgement in his decision not to arrest a Polic Officer. The Officer,went to the scene of a domestic disturbance. The Officer was alone. He entered the home to quell the situation. The entry was legally questionable.
    Upon entry he was physically attacked by a man with a knife. The Officer shot an killed this man.
    DA Specter decided that even with the legally questionable entry by the Uniformed Officer, the occupant was wrong, assaulting an Officer of the Law.

    DA Specter made this decision during a time of racial unrest in Our City. He could have easily assessed the situation in favor of being best for him politically.

  3. “Now I’m just hoping Senator Specter doesn’t do anything that brings him into my ethics microscope’s view. If I go easy on him, I’ll wonder if it’s because of fairness, or the handshake; if I am tough, I might be overcompensating for bais, which is not fair.”

    I don’t think you have anything to worry about. You seem to be the type of man who is able to view both sides of the coin. Appreciated this post. Those little humbling moments are good for us whether we like it or not. Many thanks.

  4. In one of Trudeau’s Doonesbury books, he wrote about a similar situation. The book contained portrayals of Governer Jerry Brown, back in the 70s. Trudeau wrote that when the strips first came out, he was contacted by the Governer’s staff trying to set up a meeting. The Governer’s a great guy, you should get to know him. Trudeau turned them down. His reasoning? Of course the Governer is a great guy in person. You don’t get elected if you’re not personable, but what does that have to do with anything? Trudeau didn’t want to sacrifice his integrity and his ability to lampoon the Governer’s actions fairly.

      • I messed up the details, but got the idea right. From the intro Q&A to The People’s Doonesbury:

        Q: Some of Brown’s admirers charge you’ve been uncommonly tough on him. Perhaps if you got to know him, you’d feel differently about him.

        A: Exactly. Which is as good an excuse as any to pass. One of the reasons why public figures get to be public figures in the first place is that they are not without charm. Insisting, as a George Will does, that one must get in close to make those lovely, nuanced judgment calls is utter nonsense. I’m not interested in private assurances or endearments, the insider’s “access.” I’m interested in what the outsider sees – the public face the politician chooses to project, chooses to be judged on. Nothing could be fairer. He’s setting the agenda; I’m merely reacting.

  5. I think we can all agree the last administration had more than a few ethical hiccups, to put it mildly… But I hear Shrub is delightful in person- more than just engaging, but funny and the nicknaming actually works for him. He’s great at a dinner party, and he doesn’t drink all the wine. But his WORK shows he has little to no ethical compass. Nice guys can be unethical, and often are. YOU, Jack, are both nice and ethical, and I sincerely doubt you’d have a real issue calling Specter (or anyone else you have met or know) out on an ethical lapse.

    And check for the spelling of bias…

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