Arlen Specter, Senate maverick, dies at 82

Philadelphia InquirerOctober 14, 2012 

Arlen Specter in 2010.


— Arlen Specter, 82, the longest-serving United States senator in Pennsylvania history, a driven, often contentious figure who placed himself at the center of national controversies for a half-century, from the Kennedy-assassination investigation in the 1960s to the passage of the economic stimulus package in 2009, died Sunday morning at his Philadelphia home.

Specter, who had been Pennsylvania's longest-serving U.S. senator until his retirement, died from complications of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.

Specter spent his career defying the odds in politics, and for many years also defied the odds in medicine. He survived a half-dozen bouts with life-threatening illness. He had brain tumors in 1993 and 1996. He had heart bypass surgery in 1998. He had cancerous Hodgkin's disease in 2005, and again in 2008.

"Arlen Specter was always a fighter," President Barack Obama said in a statement issued by the White House that praised the former senator as "fiercely independent never putting party or ideology ahead of the people he was chosen to serve."

Former Gov. Ed Rendell said that fiery resolve was on display when he last visited Specter at the hospital about four weeks ago.

"He was his usual cantankerous self and I just assumed he was going to make it, because he's made it all these other times," Rendell said Sunday. "He was full of piss and vinegar and he was his usual self."

He added only high praise for the man he called a mentor and a friend.

"No public servant or elected official has done more for the people of Pennsylvania in their career," Rendell said, "with the possible exception of Benjamin Franklin."

Personal toughness seemed to keep him going. He said it came from his immigrant father, Harry, who walked across Europe in his teens, fought in World War I, and, with his son on the truck seat beside him, peddled melons in the Depression.

Elected to the Senate in 1980, 1986, 1992, 1998 and 2004, Specter was a statewide official in Pennsylvania for longer - 30 years - than anyone else. He was the state's only five-term senator, overlapping five presidents from Ronald Reagan to Obama.

He wanted history to remember him, and with co-authors wrote three book-length memoirs.

As a moderate, independent Republican - a Democrat very early in his career and a Democrat at the end - Specter had no perennial base of support on which he could count election after election. He had to piece together a winning coalition each time.

He was an abortion-rights supporter in a party that mostly squeezed out that point of view. He typically had a sizeable amount of labor union support, which wasn't always the oddity for a Republican that it is today.

He found it harder and harder to hold his ground in a GOP that was leaning further and further right. Three years ago, he concluded he finally had come to the end of the line as a Republican when he made himself a pariah among conservatives by casting one of just three Republican votes in all of Congress for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus plan.

He felt the stimulus saved the nation from a second Depression, albeit at the cost of adding more than $800 billion to the national debt. He called his vote the most important of his career.

At Obama's urging, he switched to the Democratic Party for the 2010 Senate election, but was defeated in that party's primary by Rep. Joe Sestak.

Specter felt hurt that Obama hadn't done more to help him as a show of gratitude, not just for his stimulus vote, but also for his support of the president's health-care overhaul. His party switch in April 2009 had given Democrats a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate.

He quoted Harry Truman's maxim, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."

Except for a late-career stint as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Specter was not a day-to-day powerhouse in the Senate. He accrued his influence as a swing voter, a man-in-the-middle who might be persuaded to side with either party.

He angered the right with his key role in the 1987 Senate defeat of Robert Bork for Supreme Court confirmation.

He angered the left during the 1991 confirmation hearing for court nominee Clarence Thomas, in which his grilling of Anita Hill, who had accused Thomas of sexual harassment, made him the arch-nemesis of feminists.

He always voted on principle, he said. But he also knew how to negotiate for his vote.

Although he insisted there was "no quid pro quo," he won a concession to add $10 billion to the stimulus package for the National Institutes of Health, a pet cause.

With his longevity in the Senate, Specter was adept at one of the traditional jobs of a home-state legislator: delivering the sort of federal aid that is scorned as pork when it goes to someone else, but is hailed as a lifeline when it comes to you.

If Ronald Reagan was "the Teflon president," Specter said, he was the Velcro senator. Controversy stuck to him.

"It had been said that I alienated the entire electorate," he wrote. "It may be that a senator cannot do his job without angering everyone sometimes."

Specter's father started his American life in Philadelphia, working in "a tailor's sweatshop," his son said. He gravitated west to St. Joseph, Mo., where he met 16-year-old Lillie Shanin, who would become Specter's mother.

The courtship was interrupted when World War I broke out. Harry Specter returned to Europe as a soldier in the American Expeditionary Force. He was seriously wounded and limped for the rest of his life.

In 1932, amid the Depression, thousands of veterans marched on Washington to claim a $500 bonus they felt was owed them. "My father" wanted to go, his son wrote, but "didn't have the money to join them."

U.S. troops marched into the veterans' camp and burned their tents. Hundreds were injured.

Filled with his father's sense of injustice, Arlen Specter would forever say he went to Washington to right the wrongs done to ordinary people - "to get my father's bonus."

Arlen Specter was born on Feb. 12, 1930, in Wichita, Kan. From age 12, he lived in Russell, Kan., where he and his two older sisters were the only Jewish children in town.

At Russell High School, he was introduced to one of the passions of his life - debating. He was on the high school debate team, which won the state championship.

"Debate was the best education conceivable," he wrote. "It taught us how to speak fluently, to think on our feet, organize extemporaneously, do research, and deal with public-policy questions."

He spent one year at the University of Oklahoma, then transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate in 1951.

After a stint in the Air Force, he married Joan Lois Levy.

The newlyweds went off to New Haven. Conn., where Specter was a student at Yale Law School and an editor of the law journal.

With his Penn-Yale credentials, he landed a job at a prestigious corporate law firm in Philadelphia. But he soon opted for lesser pay - and greater excitement - as a prosecutor in the district attorney's office.

In 1962, he made a name for himself by prosecuting six Teamsters union officials from Philadelphia Local 107 on charges of defrauding the union treasury. It was one of the longest and most complex trials in Pennsylvania history, and it came to the attention of Robert F. Kennedy, then the U.S. Attorney General.

After President John F. Kennedy's death on Nov. 22, 1963, Specter was invited to join the Warren Commission as a staff member.

One big obstacle to a conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone was the fact that Kennedy, in the back seat, and Texas Gov. John Connally, in the front seat, had been shot from seemingly different angles at the same time. How could one man have done that?

Specter came up with the idea that a single bullet struck Kennedy from behind, passed through the president's throat, hit the governor in the back, smashed a rib, shattered a wrist, and came to rest in his thigh.

The bullet later was found on a stretcher at Dallas' Parkland Hospital, looking to critics of the Specter theory as if it had never hit anything.

Generations of conspiracy theorists have mocked it as "the magic bullet," a term Specter himself used impishly as a chapter title in his first memoir, Passion for Truth, in 2000.

He never wavered in the conviction he was right.

"I now call it a single-bullet conclusion," he wrote in "Life Among the Cannibals," the last of his three books, published in March. "It began as a theory, but when a theory is established by facts, it deserves to be called a conclusion."

After the Warren Commission, Specter returned home to Philadelphia.

Within days, he accepted an offer to lead a state investigation into corruption involving the 28 Philadelphia magistrates who presided over the city's minor civil and criminal courts.

With the notoriety he gained from that, he decided to run for district. Rebuffed by the leaders of his own Democratic party, he was recruited to run as a Republican by GOP leader William A. Meehan, who lusted for the chance to win a major office in a Democratic city.

Meehan raised the money for the campaign (a then-huge $550,000), and Specter worked the voters, talking to them in the Kansas drawl he would never lose.

Specter remained a Democrat throughout the campaign, switching to Republican after he had won. That brought charges of political expediency - the same allegation he would face 35 years later when he switched back to Democrat.

He had hardly started as D.A., he wrote, when Meehan asked him to run for mayor in 1967.

As a long-shot GOP nominee, he was defeated by incumbent Democrat Mayor James H.J. Tate. But he had kept his job as D.A., and so remained a force in the city.

He was reelected to a second term in 1969, and still seemed on track for higher office.

Running for a third term in the D.A.'s office, he lost to Democrat Emmett Fitzpatrick. Running for the U.S. Senate in 1976, he lost in the Republican primary. Running for governor in 1978, he again lost in the primary.

Finally, in 1980, he was elected to the Senate, with 51 percent of the vote.

Often described as the world's greatest deliberative body, the Senate was an ideal realm for the former debate champ from Russell High.

He loved the thrust and parry, the arcane rules, the chance to stamp matters of national importance.

It was on the Senate Judiciary Committee that Specter made the biggest impact - and generated the most controversy.

That committee oversees the confirmation process for federal judicial nominees, including Supreme Court nominees.

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan nominated Bork, a brilliant, hard-core conservative, for the Supreme Court.

The entire Democratic coalition, including groups representing minorities, women and unions, massed against Bork. Conservatives, including Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, got behind Bork.

With its civil-rights and abortion-battle overtones, the fight fanned the culture wars, and Specter was right in the middle of it as Bork's lead interrogator.

When he finally announced he would vote against Bork, it helped tip the balance, and Bork was rejected 58-42. Conservatives would never forgot who had slipped in the knife.

What liberals long held against him took place in 1991. Specter was assigned to question law professor Anita Hill in the divisive confirmation hearing for another Republican Supreme Court nominee: Thomas.

Specter doubted that Hill was telling the truth in accusing Thomas of lewd sexual harassment in an earlier period. The tone of his questions - maybe it was just Arlen being Arlen - was cold, accusatory, prosecutorial.

Women everywhere, watching on TV, decided here was another man bullying a woman.

A well-dressed woman in the hallway sneered at him, "God should strike you dead." A female aide to another senator made an obscene gesture at him. By the time he got back to his office, new phone lines had to be installed and 40 staffers imported to handle the nasty calls.

Liberals were already angry, even before he voted to confirm Thomas, who has turned out to be one of the most conservative justices in decades.

When Specter campaigned briefly for president in 1996, his effort was not taken seriously by the media or political party leaders.

His next foray into national news illustrated his often maddening contrariness.

It was 1999, and President Bill Clinton was on trial in the Senate for his actions in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Specter believed Clinton's foes had made up their minds without hearing the evidence and were rushing to judgment.

He couldn't bring himself to vote "no" on conviction, so he came up with "not proven," which he said was a verdict under Sottish law.

The nation seemed baffled, then laughed. Rendell would say years later, "Arlen wasn't a wuss, but he wussed out on that."

Specter's battles gradually were wearing him down politically.

The right had the longest memory, and in 2004 Specter barely survived a GOP primary challenge from a strong conservative, former Rep. Pat Toomey.

After the election, Specter expected his Senate seniority to be rewarded with the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee. But conservatives again fought him, and it took support from President George W. Bush for him to win the post.

He later rewarded Bush by steering the Senate confirmation of his two nominees for Supreme Court: John Roberts and Samuel Alito.

Bush was gone and Obama in office by February 2009 when the stimulus came up. Specter's support was seen by conservatives as the final apostasy.

Two months later, Specter announced he was becoming a Democrat. He said he had come to feel philosophically more in tune with Democrats, but also noted that the switch gave him a better shot at re-election the next year.

That summer, like many senators and representatives, he held town-hall meetings during the congressional recess. One such meeting in Lebanon, Pa., drew national attention when it landed on Page 1 of the New York Times.

Angry voter after angry voter - many of them members of the tea-party movement - blasted him for the stimulus, for his views on abortion and unions, and for even considering the Obama healthcare bill.

Some got so red-faced and in his face that Specter's security team became nervous.

"This is about the dismantling of this country," the Times quoted one woman. "We don't want this country to turn into Russia."

"One day, God is going to stand before you, and he's going to judge you," a man said.

Democratic leaders tried to clear the 2010 primary field for Specter by easing out Sestak, who had been campaigning for months.

But Sestak would not go. He ran a TV ad that showed a devious-looking Specter saying, "My change in party will enable me to be re-elected." A narrator then told voters: "Arlen Specter switched parties to save one job - his, not yours."

Out of step with Republicans, never really in tune with Democrats, Specter lost.

A man whose whole life had been politics began to look ahead.

He went on to write his third book, to teach a course at Penn law school, to dabble in his hobby - standup comedy.

A man who prided himself on eating right and playing squash each morning - and who believed a martini was good for you - Specter was plagued with health problems on and off for almost two decades.

His second book, "Never Give In," partly the story of his surviving Hodgkin's disease, had been in publication for just a month in 2008 when the cancer returned.

He seemed, again, to have beaten the disease.

But on Aug. 28, after a four-year interval, he revealed that once more he was being treated for cancer.

What could be seen as his final words to America were contained in his last book, in which he bemoaned the increasing intolerance and unwillingness to compromise in politics.

He was never an ideologue. The old debater could always argue both sides of an issue. No one, he was sure, had all the answers.

"In some quarters, compromise has become a dirty word," he wrote. "Ideological purity has become a precondition for support. Politics is no longer the art of the possible when senators are intransigent in their positions. Polarization of the political parties has followed."

(Ralph Cipriano contributed to this report.)

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