It’s Sunday, and news of former U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, the outspoken Pennsylvania centrist whose switch from Republican to Democrat ended a 30-year career in which he played a pivotal role in several Supreme Court nominations, died Wednesday. He was 82.
Spector died Wednesday after a lengthy battle with cancer, but his family decided to wait until Sunday to announce his death.
The former senator, who announced in late August that he was battling cancer, died at his home in Philadelphia from complications of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, said his son Shanin. Over the years, Arlen Specter had fought two previous bouts with Hodgkin’s disease, overcome a brain tumor and survived cardiac arrest following bypass surgery.
The veteran Pennsylvania senator had overcome numerous serious illnesses over the past two decades, including a brain tumor and non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Specter rose to prominence in the 1960s as an aggressive Philadelphia prosecutor and as an assistant counsel to the Warren Commission, developing the single-bullet theory that posited just one bullet struck both President Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally — an assumption critical to the argument that presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. The theory remains controversial and was the focus of Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie “JFK.”
In 1987, Specter helped thwart the Supreme Court nomination of former federal appeals Judge Robert H. Bork — earning him conservative enemies who still bitterly refer to such rejections as being “borked.”
But four years later, Specter was criticized by liberals for his tough questioning of Anita Hill at Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination hearings and for accusing her of committing “flat-out perjury.” The nationally televised interrogation incensed women’s groups and nearly cost him his seat in 1992.
Specter, who had battled cancer, was Pennsylvania’s longest-serving senator when Democrats picked then-U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak over him in the 2010 primary, despite Specter’s endorsements by President Barack Obama and other Democratic leaders. Sestak lost Specter’s seat to conservative Republican Rep. Pat Toomey by 2 percentage points.
A political moderate, Specter was swept into the Senate in the Reagan landslide of 1980.
He took credit for helping to defeat President Clinton’s national health care plan — the complexities of which he highlighted in a gigantic chart that hung on his office wall for years afterward — and helped lead the investigation into Gulf War syndrome. Following the Iran-Contra scandal, he pushed legislation that created the inspectors general of the CIA.
As a senior member of the powerful Appropriations Committee, Specter pushed for increased funding for stem-cell research, breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, and supported several labor-backed initiatives in a GOP-led Congress. He also doggedly sought federal funds for local projects in his home state.
The former Democrat was not shy about bucking fellow Republicans.
In 1995, he launched a presidential bid, denouncing religious conservatives as the “fringe” that plays too large a role in setting the party’s agenda. Specter, who was Jewish, bowed out before the first primary because of lackluster fundraising.
Despite his tireless campaigning, Specter’s irascible independence caught up with him in 2004. Specter barely survived a GOP primary challenge by Toomey by 17,000 votes of more than 1.4 million cast. He went on to easily win the general election with the help of organized labor, a traditionally Democratic constituency.
Arlen Specter’s roots stretch back to Wichita, Kan., where he was born in 1930, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants.
His family moved east to Philadelphia during the Depression to live with relatives.
It is that part of his early life which figured into his 2009 vote in favor of Pres. Obama’s economic stimulus package despite strong opposition from fellow Republicans.
“A very, very difficult decision as to whether to support the vote for a stimulus,” Specter recalled in a recent interview, “being the critical vote on getting it passed — which ended up costing me my seat in the United States Senate.”
He also ran for mayor of Philadelphia, but Democratic incumbent mayor James Tate beat him in 1967.
Specter was defeated in his bid for a third term as DA in 1973.
A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Yale Law School, Specter went back into private practice for a few years before surfacing for an unsuccessful bid for US Senate in 1976, suffering a narrow primary defeat at the hands of John Heinz.
He also ran for governor of Pennsylvania in 1978 and lost in the primary to Dick Thornburgh, who went on to serve two terms.
Finally, in 1980, it was Specter’s time. Sen. Richard Schweiker announced his retirement, and Specter ran for and won Pennsylvania’s second US Senate seat, taking office in 1981. He served there for 30 years.
His tenure was not always smooth. In 1991, while sitting on the Senate Judiciary Committee during the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, Specter grilled Anita Hill about sexual harassment allegations she made against Thomas.
(Specter:) “You took it to mean that Judge Thomas wanted to have sex with you, but in fact he never did ask you to have sex. Correct?”
(Hill:) “No, he never did ask me to have sex.”
Dismissing the controversy, Specter insisted he damaged Hill’s credibility enough for Thomas to win confirmation to the court.
Specter had a brief flirtation with presidential ambitions when he announced his candidacy for the White House in the spring of 1995. But he dropped out of the race a few months later to support fellow US senator Bob Dole, who lost to then-president Bill Clinton.
Specter was described over his many years in office by politicians of both parties in Pennsylvania as someone willing to work with the opposition and cross the aisle to get what his constituents needed.
But Specter abandoned the Republican Party in 2009 and switched his registration back to Democrat — the party in which he was first registered as an adult in 1951 — as the GOP prepped a primary challenger (Pat Toomey) in retribution for Specter’s vote supporting the stimulus package. Specter had narrowly defeated Toomey in a bruising primary battle in 2004.
Specter recently conceded in an interview that although the Obama White House promised its full support of his candidacy after the stimulus vote and party switch, he didn’t see it.
“When the campaign came, he didn’t show up,” Specter said.
Specter lost in the 2010 Democratic primary, to Joe Sestak. Sestak went on to lose the general election to Toomey.
In 2005 Specter announced he was battling an advanced form of cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
He underwent chemotherapy treatments and the disease went into remission. But it returned in the spring of 2008 and, again, Specter took more chemotherapy to send the disease back into remission.
In the months since leaving politics, Specter taught a class at the University of Pennsylvania law school on Congress and the courts, and continued to speak out about various issues.
He wrote and released a book this past March about the incivility in Washington DC, titled Life Among the Cannibals, A Tea Party Uprising, And the End of Governing As We Know It.
Specter also spoke recently about the presidential race, saying he is disappointed in Pres. Obama’s policies and feels if Mitt Romney stands a chance to capture the White House, he’ll have to veer more toward the center.
“The primary process has moved the Republican nominee so far to the right, he’s going to have to make a sharp U-turn,” Specter said.
Specter is survived by his wife, Joan, sons Shanin and Stephen, and four grandchildren.
A funeral service will occur on Tuesday, October 16 at Har Zion Temple at 1500 Hagys Ford Road, Penn Valley, PA and will be open to the public (no camera’s or recording devices). Interment will immediately follow the funeral service and will occur at Shalom Memorial Park at Pine and Byberry Roads in Huntingdon Valley, PA. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Philadelphia University or another charity.
“Arlen’s knowledge of the inner workings of the government and lawmaking is second to none,” said Michael Fitts, the law school’s dean. “The insight he brings from his career in public service, particularly as a leader on judicial issues, will be invaluable to our students as they prepare for their own careers in the law.”
Contributor D. Chandler