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.