Arlen Specter: a Sty in the Public Eye

Screenshot/Philadelphia Inquirer

King George III asked an American painter what the victorious George Washington would do now that independence had been won.

The painter knew that, just like his patron, millions of people at home and abroad simply assumed — and even hoped — that the general would allow himself to be crowned the first king of America. ‘Twas ever thus, no?


However, this painter also knew of Washington’s actual plans, and so he told King George, “They say he will return to his farm” — in the classical spirit personified by Cincinnatus, the Roman emperor whose example of reluctant (and temporary) harkening to the call of duty was greatly admired by the Founders.

“Why, if he does that,” George III famously replied, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”

No one will ever exclaim such a thing about Arlen Specter.

Whereas Cincinnatus and Washington wanted to shrug off the heavy burden of public service and humbly return to something resembling private life as soon as they could, Specter is clinging to fame for as long as possible, like a sty in the public eye.

Other supposedly retired politicos have written memoirs (does anyone actually read these, by the way?) and undertake book tours to promote them. However, Arlen Specter is the first of these I’m aware of who is flogging his tome at comedy open mics.

You think I’m kidding.

In other words:

The closest Arlen Specter will ever get to emulating the father of your country will be if somebody opens a comedy club in Cincinnati and calls it “The Farm.”

As various scholars have demonstrated, the distinguished signers of the Declaration of Independence had very different ideas about “fame” than we do.

To quote Adam Carolla: “If the Founding Fathers came back today, they would never stop killing themselves.”


Apparently, I’m the last to know about Specter’s semi-secret desire to become a stand up comedian, which I first learned about last week via the comedy blog Splitsider (which declared the long-time Pennsylvania pol to be “amazing at stand up comedy”).

It turns out the senator has been at this for a while, placing second in 2007’s “Funniest Celebrity in Washington” Contest.

Here’s his runner-up routine — with a mild content warning (Spector works what I’d call “baby blue“):

Then there was the time he landed in trouble for telling some Polish jokes in 2008:

The “New York Post” reported that Specter began by asking if anyone in the room was Polish. At that, around 10 people raised their hands. He proceeded to tell a few jokes about Polish people until one guest interrupted him, saying, “Hey, careful. I’m Polish!” Specter responded, “That’s OK, I’ll tell it more slowly.” This was met with grumblings of tastlessness, and Specter eventually apologized saying it was a mistake.

He also got some (more welcome) attention for a gig in Philadelphia last December, which the Atlantic Wire called “not bad.”

And honestly? Specter’s not that bad, as in not “worse than Rupert Pupkin” bad. Certainly Nick DiPaolo and Louis CK have nothing to worry about. Hell, Wayland Flowers and Madam have nothing to worry about, and they’re dead.


But Specter’s not that good, either, except in that qualified “for a former U.S. senator” kind of way.

The trouble seems to be Arlen Specter’s apparent reluctance to joke about himself.

His bits revolve around the (usually sexual) foibles of former colleagues like Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton, whereas the best professional comics make fun of themselves as much as they do others.

(That’s the second half of my theory as to why Ann Coulter inspires a level of raw hatred unknown to her masculine counterpart P.J. O’Rourke, whose work can be even more shamelessly, personally cruel: in short, Coulter never deigns to self-depricate, whereas O’Rourke isn’t above describing himself as a one-time hippie loser or incompetent dad.)

(The first half is that she’s female. But that’s another column.)

None of this should surprise even a disbarred psychologist. Politicians are notoriously vain and self-confident, in direct disproportion to their actual attractiveness and accomplishments. They shove themselves into our lives via careers in “public service” (a.k.a. “show business for ugly people”), driven by ambition so naked it could set up a webcam and charge by the minute.

And these days — can you say “Robert Bird,” everybody? — they never, ever leave.

It’s not that Arlen Specter is wanting for sources of more personal material. For one thing, I assume he owns a mirror.


Then there’s the little matter of the Warren Commission.

Yes, Specter is one of the last living members of that fraught investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy. Oh please! Don’t “too soon” me: Arlen “Single Bullet” Specter was the fellow behind the controversial “magic bullet” theory of the murder, which was mercilessly (and, no surprise, inaccurately) mocked in Oliver Stone’s JFK.

Specter’s theory, once universally dismissed by liberal sophisticates as the absurd punchline of an unfunny cosmic joke, is now considered far more plausible thanks to advanced computer modelling, and the calm, commonsensical arguments of lifelong “buff” Vincent Bugliosi:

(I know: Bugliosi also thinks George W. Bush is a war criminal, leading me, in turn, to wonder if maybe Charles Manson was framed…)

And while a bullet can’t change direction in midair, Specter managed it by crossing the political aisle. Surely his switch from Republican to Democrat is another rich potential vein for jokes.

Furthermore, no stand up comic worth his free drinks would hesitate to joke about getting cancer, but Specter’s sense of humor doesn’t go anywhere near his own Hodgkin’s lymphoma (now presumably in remission).

Instead, Specter seems content to obsess about seeing famous people naked and other dubious carnal concerns, getting half-hearted laughs at the expense of others.


Such musings are entertaining in their way, at least in the capable hands of Glenn Beck and his crew, who reverted to their former “morning zoo” selves when reading excerpts from Specter’s memoir on the air:

We may long for the halcyon days of old, when retired politicians who wished to retain a modicum of the public’s respect faded away and allowed a new generation to enjoy the power and prestige, especially when we’re presented with the unedifying spectacle of Arlen Specter’s zombie-like “retirement.”

I’d tell the guy not to quit his day job, but alas, that’s exactly what seems to have encouraged him.


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