Jonathan Bernstein is an indispensable political scientist and blogger, but I question the validity of his snark about the late Senator Arlen Specter’s intellectual gifts. Bernstein riffs on a passage from Rich Yeselson’s article:
Yselson calls Specter (by way of Nixon) a “brilliant, ruthless political obsessive,” but I don’t think that’s right. I’m not even sure about ruthless; yeah, he was willing to be brutal to those he opposed, but I always read that more as far that Specter was always certain that he was correct, rather than that he was willing to destroy others to further self-interest, although Nixon to be sure was always very good at believing that his sort and long-term self-interest was always part of the national interest that his enemies just didn’t see. Mostly, it’s the “brilliant” part I don’t see at all. Arlen Specter may have been Arlen Specter’s idea of a smart person, but there’s precious little evidence that I’m aware of that we should buy into it.
My experience of Arlen Specter over a number of years was that he was consistently incisive in his analyses and remarkably knowledgeable about policy content. He was also passionately supportive of science and was (along with Senator Tom Harkin) the driving force in the Senate behind the growth of the National Institutes of Health. I’ve known many elected officials and would put Specter up with the best in terms of brain power.
As for the implied charge that Specter thought he was smarter than everyone else, let me provide some context. He did think he was smarter than most other politicians. But Bernstein’s implication that Specter thought he was smarter than everyone else does not resonate with my experience.
I remember vividly a day when a friend and I set up a small breakfast with Specter to discuss NIH issues. Three of the 8 guests were Nobel Laureates, and Specter’s admiration of and humility before those mighty boffins was very evident. He was curious about what they were doing and deferential when then pushed back on his views on science policy.
I am far from as smart as a Nobel Laureate, and can aver further that over the years that we worked together on public policy issues Specter never treated me — in public or in private — as an intellectual inferior.
What Bernstein may be reacting to is that Specter could be tactless in lording his intelligence over other Senators. He did do that sometimes, and I didn’t like it either. But noting that reality is different than proving he wasn’t one of the smartest Senators; he was. And he was more than capable of recognizing that other people were as smart or smarter than he was and of respecting them accordingly.