Michael Smerconish: Draft Arlen Specter (for the Mideast)!

Posted: December 16, 2010

THERE was a campaign button being circulated among the power brokers at the annual confab of the Pennsylvania Society last weekend in New York:

"He's older, he's wiser, and nobody owns him: Specter for Mayor 2011."

It had GOP strategist Roger Stone's fingerprints all over it. You never know when Stone is joking. (Just ask Elliot Spitzer.)

To the extent that anyone would see City Hall in Specter's future, I'd argue that they were setting their sights too locally.

I'm thinking Islamabad.

In light of Richard Holbrooke's death, President Obama should name Specter the new special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I thought that when I heard the president's remembrance of Holbrooke on Monday: "As anyone who has ever worked with him knows - or had the clear disadvantage of negotiating across the table from him - Richard is relentless.

"He never stops. He never quits. Because he's always believed that if we stay focused, if we act on our mutual interests, that progress is possible. Wars can end. Peace can be forged."

Throughout more than four decades of public service, Specter has embodied many of the same characteristics. He was elected D.A. in the Republican no-fly zone of Philadelphia. Became a hard-charging prosecutor battling corruption. Helped investigate the Kennedy assassination on the Warren Commission.

He lost elections for mayor of Philadelphia, the Senate and governor before finally winning his Senate seat in 1980. For three decades, he staked out the political common ground as the Senate became increasingly overwhelmed by polarization and gridlock.

He beat open-heart surgery, a brain tumor and Hodgkin's disease (twice).

In short, he defied any number of odds to become not only Pennsylvania's longest-serving U.S. senator, but also one of the most influential elected officials in the country.

His legacy as such will likely revolve around his accomplishments in the realm of the judiciary. As longtime Pennsylvania political observers Terry Madonna and Michael Young noted this week, Specter played a significant role in the confirmation of 14 Supreme Court justices and at least 125 federal trial and appellate judges during his stay on the Judiciary Committee.

Others will cite his investigative prowess. From the Warren Commission and the single bullet "conclusion" (as Specter insists upon putting it) to Spygate and the New England Patriots, Specter never shied away from a good inquiry.

Still others could point to his political centrism in an age of increasing partisanship. Or his dogged advocacy on behalf of the National Institutes of Health and in favor of stem cell research.

Yet, as Madonna and Young correctly note, "Less well known is his energetic record on immigration and foreign affairs. Specter's frequent visits and expertise on the Middle East has made him one of the nation's most knowledgeable authorities on the region."

Indeed, he's been to 90-plus countries over his three decades in D.C., including six visits to Pakistan over 20 years and two to Afghanistan. He logged 28 trips to Israel, 20 to Syria, 18 to Egypt.

His international forays have included meetings with Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Presidents Muhammad Zia ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf, King Hussein and King Abdullah of Jordan, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Specter has conferred with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Francois Mitterrand of France. He's met with eight Israeli prime ministers, including Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu.

His experience includes encounters with U.S. antagonists like Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Gadhafi of Libya, and Hafez and Bashar al-Assad of Syria. And he particularly treasures his two visits with Pope John Paul II.

Few U.S. officials have such a breadth of firsthand knowledge of the world's high-profile leaders, including those in the tumultuous and dangerous Middle East.

And given Specter's trademark relentlessness, political skill and an intellectual curiosity unrivaled in the Senate, he'd be a more-than-worthy successor to Holbrooke, himself a true giant of U.S. international affairs.

Obama should give him the chance to prove it. He's older, wiser - and nobody owns him. He's also available.

Listen to Michael Smerconish weekdays 5-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210/AM. Read him Sundays in the Inquirer. Contact him via the Web at www.smerconish.com.

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