Arlen Specter, 1930–2012

The senator who battled on both sides of the aisle

A hard-bitten radical for the cause of moderation, Arlen Specter rarely steered clear of a fight. Pennsylvania’s longest-serving senator managed at various times in his career to upset the leaders of the Republican Party and to exasperate Democrats. He outraged both conservative and liberal guardians of the Supreme Court and earned the undying ire of many women’s groups. Along the way, he beat Hodgkin’s disease and a brain tumor, and survived cardiac arrest. What finally did in his career, he said, was the corrosive growth of partisanship in national politics. “Cannibals devour their young,” he said earlier this year, “and that’s what’s happening in Washington.”

Specter claimed that his father, Harry, a Jewish immigrant who settled in Kansas, bequeathed him his “personal toughness,” said The Philadelphia Inquirer. As a boy he helped him peddle melons door to door, and later pitched in at his successful scrap metal business. Specter eventually moved east to attend the University of Pennsylvania, and after a stint in the Air Force earned a law degree from Yale. He landed a corporate law job but soon quit to become a prosecutor in Philadelphia. From the outset he didn’t shy away from controversy. As a staff member of the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, he came up with the “single bullet theory” to explain how Lee Harvey Oswald alone both killed the president and wounded Texas Gov. John Connally. Though mocked by generations of conspiracy theorists, it was never refuted, and Specter later called it the “single bullet conclusion.”

“In a political landscape that has become increasingly calcified by the simplistic, Arlen Specter was a complicated man,” said the Philadelphia Daily News. Though registered as a Democrat, in 1965 he was elected district attorney as a Republican, an allegiance he kept when he “was swept into the Senate in the Reagan landslide of 1980,” said the Associated Press. Specter’s support for affirmative action and abortion rights frequently put him at odds with his party, and in 1987, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he bucked the GOP leadership to thwart the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. Yet four years later, during the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, he reaped the enmity of liberals and women’s groups with his sharp questioning of Anita Hill, whose account of sexual harassment by Thomas he characterized as “flat-out perjury.”

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Specter was no more prone to toe the party line in the 1999 impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton, said The Wall Street Journal, voting “not proven, therefore not guilty.” Ten years later, he voted for President Obama’s stimulus package and health-care reform legislation, and the Republican leadership never forgave him. “When a strong GOP primary challenger emerged” for the 2010 race, he switched parties altogether and sought a sixth Senate term by running as a Democrat. He was beaten in the primary by a candidate brandishing the charge of opportunism, said That was an “odd conclusion” to a distinguished legislative career, but perhaps fitting for a man “who seemed to relish taking stands that set him apart.”

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