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The Nation

Senator Takes On Cancer Like Another Adversary

Arlen Specter has been in the middle of many battles. With Hodgkin's he's no moderate.

June 25, 2005|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When Sen. Arlen Specter gets out of bed at 6 a.m. each day, he no longer recognizes the face that greets him in the bathroom mirror. The tangle of auburn hair is gone. The skin is ashen and hangs from the corners of his mouth. The eyes are rimmed with red.

Specter has five weeks to go in a six-month course of chemotherapy. At the same time, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- a moderate Republican despised by many conservatives and distrusted by many Democrats -- is confronting not only his mortality but what could be the most challenging period in his long political career.

If a Supreme Court resignation comes soon, as many in Washington believe, it will be Specter's job to prepare for and preside over Judiciary Committee hearings on President Bush's pick for the vacancy. And those hearings are expected to produce the biggest congressional made-for-television spectacle since the Clinton impeachment case.

Specter would face a tough job during the best of times. But these have hardly been the best of times for the 75-year-old Pennsylvanian.

Under attack from the Republican Party's conservative wing, he barely held on to the committee chairmanship last fall. Six weeks later, he was diagnosed with advanced Hodgkin's lymphoma, a rare blood cancer. According to doctors, the disease had spread from the lymph nodes, where it starts, to other organs in his body.

Since then, Specter has been struggling with two tenacious foes -- cancer and his party's right wing.

"The medical problems are obviously difficult," he said, describing the chemotherapy as "tough but tolerable."

"I find that the busier I am, the less time I have to think about myself. And there's been a lot of opportunity to be very busy."

That would be an understatement, one of many Specter is wont to make.

For instance, he plays down the impact of the hostility directed his way from social conservatives, saying he has "made a conscious decision not to disagree with the political activism of religious groups."

And he plays down the difficulty of the chemotherapy, recounting how he has yet to miss a committee meeting and still plays squash three or four times a week.

He delivers his signature line with gusto: "I've beat a brain tumor, I've beat bypass surgery, a lot of political opponents, and I'm going to beat this too."

But the cancer has taken its toll, and it's not done with him yet.

Specter's raspy voice has lost some of its volume, and he pauses from time to time to clear his throat or nose. He keeps a tissue folded on his knee, and raises it every few minutes to wipe his eyes, which water constantly.

When pressed, Specter acknowledges that he finds it hard to eat in the days after his biweekly chemotherapy sessions, and has dropped a few pounds from his already slender frame. He has a persistent headache, which he describes as an "overhang" above his eyes.

He has given up his daily martini, because it no longer tastes palatable, as well as drinking bottled water -- which also tastes bad as a result of the chemotherapy.

Instead, he drinks Gatorade and sometimes beer. And makes jokes about his "new hairdo."

"You look pretty good this way," he told a bald reporter during an April news conference as the last wisps of his own hair were falling out.

Doctors have given Specter a 70% chance of beating his Hodgkin's -- a better prognosis than for some forms of cancer, but far from a certainty.

Some cancer patients, especially those beyond retirement age, choose to reduce or take leave from work to marshal their forces to beat the disease and spend more time with family and friends in case they don't succeed. But not Specter, who insists he has the physical strength to lead Senate Republicans through a Supreme Court nomination battle.

"I can't say that when there's a need for energy, that there's any shortage," Specter said.

His 31-year-old squash partner, staff lawyer Evan Kelly, chimed in: "I can vouch for that."

"He just wants to keep what he's doing," said Edward Becker, a judge on the federal appellate court in Philadelphia who had been Specter's friend for more than 50 years. "When you have major responsibilities, when you have interesting work, you don't pull back. He hasn't thought for a moment about pulling back."

Friends and colleagues also said Specter was not one to draw attention to his woes, be they physical or political.

"He subscribes to the notion that your face should never show how hard you're being kicked in the butt," Becker said.

Since Congress convened in January, Specter's Judiciary Committee has been at the center of the legislative action. The panel guided into law a bill curbing class action lawsuits and another tightening bankruptcy rules. It is now pushing a third measure that would create a trust fund to pay the victims of asbestos-related diseases.

All three bills had languished for years in the Senate and this year were voted out of committee primarily because Specter strong-armed senators from both parties.

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