Remembering Senator Arlen Specter

When I first got the call to paint Senator Specter for Yale Law School, I was instantly thrilled.  Like many Americans who enjoy politics and C-Span TV, I had long known of the famous Senator from Pennsylvania from his numerous interviews, Senate floor speeches, debates, and magazine and newspaper articles. The longest serving United States Senator from the keystone state, he was a powerhouse of intellect and a person of unwavering determination.  “Snarlin Arlen” as he was known by reputation, caused more than a touch of reservation in me. I hoped I could connect with this formidable senator in a way that would help me create a lasting portrait of the man.  Happily, throughout the commission, I was surprised again and again by Senator Specter’s interest in the portrait’s success and his personal thoughtfulness and loyalty.

Our initial introduction was not as fruitful as I had hoped.  We met for dinner with his wife in a particularly loud restaurant.  Throughout dinner we all struggled to hear each other’s conversations and were interrupted again and again by passers by who wanted to speak to the Senator.  Meaningful conversation proved impossible.  We then walked to a local theater where, finally… we engaged in a bit of small talk.  I enjoyed the play, but at the intermission the Senator said he would need to leave early.  He had a busy Sunday morning with an interview on a nationally syndicated television news show, a brunch at his home with a few supporters and then posing for me the rest of the afternoon.  Had you asked me how the evening had gone I would have confessed I was not sure I had gained much for my portrait.  Every moment with my sitter is research and this night, although a privilege – had not produced for me an accurate impression of the man. The next day would prove to be totally the opposite.

I caught the interview on television the following morning, and then headed to the Specters’ attractive home just outside Philadelphia. There I found Senator Specter had arrived before me and had already begun speaking with several couples who had come for a Q&A brunch event.  He was beginning a campaign that would last more than two years ending in his switching parties and ultimately his first defeat in 30 years of service to the people of Pennsylvania.

After the last guest left, Senator Specter asked me out to his patio sun porch and inquired as to just what I needed for our time together. He was a bit short in conversation and said “Ok, ok – let’s get on with it.  I don’t have a lot of time.”  So, I got to it – beginning my photo shoot and discussing the portrait. The painting was for Yale Law School and had been commissioned by some friends to celebrate his 50th anniversary since graduating from Yale Law.  As we worked, he had an intensity and focus that seemed perfectly right for his reputation.

During the process, Senator Specter said, “I saw a portrait of the mayor of Philadelphia in the late 1950’s and always liked the pose.  He was looking down, arms crossed.  What do you think about that kind of pose for me?”  I wanted to seize the moment because I was in perfect agreement with him.  I had been studying the Senator on television while on the floor of the Senate and had seen him in this pose before. “The pose is PERFECT for you, Senator!”  I said – and reinforced, “I have been watching you give floor speeches at the Senate.  You strike that pose many times in a thoughtful, meaningful stance – glasses in hand and glancing down just before you make a point.  It will show you as poised, reflective, a man of exceptional, discerning intelligence – one of the greatest minds in the Senate in the last 100 years!”  With that, he looked at me intently with the slightest hint of a grin and said, “What’s this business about the last 100 years?”  “You’re right Senator!”  I replied as quickly as I could form the words. “What was I thinking? I should have said in the last 220 years!”  Putting his hand firmly on my shoulder and looking me square in the eye he smiled and said, “We’re going to get along just fine.”  And so we did.  From that time on, the moments and the memories stack up a mile high.

The rest of the afternoon included a long and relaxed lunch prepared by Mrs. Specter. While sitting at their dinning room table, we swapped fun stories about people I had painted that he knew, his love of old slap stick comedy movies with the Marx Brothers,  their travels around the world.  Late in the day he shared with me his scrap albums covering years of his career from a prosecutor in Philadelphia in the late 1950′s to his run for President, to his time in the Senate.  He told me stories in great detail of his time on the Warren Commission following the assassination of President Kennedy, meetings with Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King.  What had started off as a clipped series of events eventually slid into a relaxing Sunday afternoon revealing a true picture of the man I was to paint.

In the months to follow, the Senator and Mrs. Specter visited my Nashville studio.  We completed his portrait and enjoyed an amazing unveiling in the Constitution Center in Philadelphia for hundreds of his supporters, family and friends. Since that time I have seen the Senator on many occasions. Most recently this spring at a portrait unveiling.  He always took time to chat.  Even commenting on my hair style change and comparing to his own “loss of curls” in recent years.  He and Mrs. Specter looked great and he was headed out to do an all out blitz on his newly published book.

I can honestly say that he has had a special and lasting impact on me. Some of it is unexplainable and may be attributable to his own unique skill as a politician – but, some of it I know is my sheer respect and admiration of him.  Watching him fight his numerous bouts with cancer, all the while still getting up every day, shoes polished, tie perfectly knotted and pocket square neatly folded the same way for more than 30 years. With his devoted work ethic, never missing a day on the floor of the Senate during his treatments.  Always intently focused on the issues of the day and how he could make a difference, he was impressive in every way, and I will always be grateful and honored that I had the opportunity to paint his portrait and know this remarkable man.