Obituary: Arlen Specter | Crafty senator who served Pennsylvania for five terms

Feb. 12, 1930 - Oct. 14, 2012

Former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, a crafty Republican moderate who became a crucial Democratic vote and played a central role in political battles including the Supreme Court confirmation of Clarence Thomas, the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton and the passage of health care reform, died Sunday.

He was 82.

Mr. Specter served five terms as a Republican U.S. senator, the longest of any Pennsylvanian, switching to the Democratic Party in 2009, ensuring passage of President Barack Obama's health care law. But Pennsylvania Democrats never accepted him as one of their own, and he was defeated in the party's 2010 Senate primary.

PG archive: Specter talks of recurrence of cancer in 2008

Former Sen. Arlen Specter comments on his recurrence of cancer in the archival video from 2008. (Steve Mellon video; 10/14/2012)

During Mr. Specter's decades in public office, he served on the Senate Judiciary and Appropriations committees, shaping the federal judiciary and the Supreme Court and funneling billions toward federal cancer research, but his influence spilled far beyond the Senate chamber.

He was a key figure in the 1964 Warren Commission investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and a 1996 presidential candidate who shared a Kansas hometown with Senate Majority leader Bob Dole. Mr. Specter, who fought a cascade of serious illnesses during the past two decades, including open-heart surgery, a brain tumor and bouts with lymphatic cancers, died at his home near Philadelphia of complications from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, his son Shanin said. He was diagnosed in August with the new form of cancer.

Possessed with a razor-sharp legal mind, searing ambition and boundless energy, the former Philadelphia prosecutor was an avid player in take-no-prisoners Senate politics. He reveled in his role as man in the middle of the action rather than in the margins, even while he struggled to remain one of the last of the Republican Party's centrists.

While he said it was all in service of bipartisanship, his colleagues were often infuriated by his triangulating. Mr. Specter "is always there when we don't need him," complained Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in a book written before Mr. Specter became a Democrat in 2009 and provided a vote for health care reform that Mr. Reid very much needed.

In a statement Sunday, Mr. Obama said Mr. Specter "was always a fighter. From his days stamping out corruption as a prosecutor in Philadelphia to his three decades of service in the Senate, Arlen was fiercely independent -- never putting party or ideology ahead of the people he was chosen to serve."


Mr. Specter's career was always a high-wire act. During his first years in the Senate, he earned a reputation as an incorrigible publicity hound -- Captain Kangaroo and porn star Linda Lovelace were among the witnesses at his hearings -- and he infuriated the Reagan White House by voting frequently with Democrats, prompting the president to withhold his endorsement in the 1986 Republican Senate primary.

As the GOP inexorably moved to the right, Mr. Specter's isolation increased. Shunned by Republicans when he voted for the stimulus package, he finally changed parties, but it was too late: The economy was terrible, and voters were turning against all incumbents.

He lost to former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak in the Democratic primary, who in turn lost to former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, a Republican, in the general election.

A consummate politician

For a long time, though, Mr. Specter beat the odds, winning tough Senate re-election campaigns, using his consummate political skills to navigate around any obstacle. He may have irritated Mr. Reagan, but he defeated Democrat Bob Edgar in 1986, a year when Republican senators mostly lost.

Depending on the prevailing political winds, he'd tack left or right, supported by a trifecta of constituencies usually aligned with Democrats: women, labor and Jewish groups. He backed the death penalty for convicted murderers and preached fiscal restraint. Yet he favored abortion rights for women, opposed a constitutional amendment reinstating school prayer and more federal money for child immunization and prenatal care.

In 1987, he enraged Republicans with his close questioning of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, and his claim that Mr. Bork was "a throwback" effectively scuttled the nomination. In 1991, Mr. Specter appeared to be trying to make amends with the GOP when he aggressively questioned Oklahoma University law professor Anita Hill, who had accused Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her when the two worked for the federal government in the 1980s. It was a major political miscalculation: When Mr. Specter charged Ms. Hill with "flat-out perjury," former feminist supporters erupted in fury and promptly recruited a woman candidate, Lynn Yeakel, to run against him in the 1992 election.

At one point he was 15 points behind, in such dire shape that his son, Shanin, who ran his campaign, warned him, "If you're real lucky and she makes lots of mistakes, you might win."

Win Mr. Specter did, running a flawless, intensely negative campaign against Ms. Yeakel -- distancing himself from Republican President George H.W. Bush and reminding voters of his record of health care, civil rights, abortion rights and anti-crime initiatives. Outspending Ms. Yeakel by 2-to-1, Ms. Specter won by less than 200,000 votes.

In tributes that came in Sunday following news of his death, colleagues and opponents alike credited a hard fighter who got things done.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey said Mr. Specter "was a statesman and a problem solver who was able to work with Democrats and Republicans in the best interest of our commonwealth and our country."

Mr. Toomey, who won the seat after Mr. Specter was defeated in the 2010 primary, called him "a man of sharp intelligence and dogged determination" who "dedicated his life to public service and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. His impact on our state and public policy will not be forgotten."

"Today I lost a dear friend and our country lost a great leader in the passing of Senator Arlen Specter," said former Republican national committeewoman Elsie Hillman of Pittsburgh. "Pennsylvania has been blessed with many great senators and governors, but few have had the impact on helping Pennsylvania as our longest serving senator, Arlen Specter."

A relentless campaigner

His success as a senator was due, he claimed, to his visits to all 67 counties in Pennsylvania, and indeed, he had the drill down pat: Typically he'd enter a room with a posse of note-taking aides; give a short speech, and call for a show of hands from those who wanted to question their senator.

"Questions, not speeches," he'd caution his inquisitors in his folksy, nasal drawl -- more Kansas than Philadelphia. If the questioning got rough -- as it did at a town hall meeting in Lebanon in 2009 when an angry crowd shouted at him about health care reform -- he stood his ground, warning disruptive demonstrators that they would be thrown out.

"We're not going to tolerate any demonstrations or any booing," he said after one protester shoved another for speaking out of turn. "So it's up to you."

When Michael D. Langan, a retired Treasury enforcement official, first moved to Washington, D.C., to work for U.S. Rep. John LaFalce, D-N.Y., he joined a squash club on Capitol Hill "and it was there that I first met Arlen. He was playing Sen. Bob Packwood, another frequent partner. Arlen wore a [transparent] hockey mask when he played Packwood, who earlier broke Specter's nose and part of his jaw with a mighty swing of his racquet. Injury was just part of the sport, and it didn't stop Arlen," he said.

Mr. Langan said Mr. Specter offered him a job, despite sharply differing political views, because "his lawyer's mind needed, required, opposing perspectives to sharpen his own views of issues that touched on morality, which is to say, everything. He possessed a great openness to life in general."

Mr. Langan continued playing squash with the senator but declined his job offer.

Because Mr. Specter's base included pragmatic Democrats mindful of his clout on Capitol Hill and liberal, pro-choice Republicans from the suburbs of Philadelphia, he could spurn the overtures of Republican presidents to vote as he pleased and then brag to constituents about his unwillingness to toe the party line.

At a town hall in 2007, a woman demanded to know when the partisan Democrats would get off the back of then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

"That's all right with me, to get the Democrats off the back of Attorney General Gonzales," Mr. Specter replied evenly. "But then he'd still have me to contend with."

Ever the poker player, he often waited until the very last minute to reveal a position: during Mr. Clinton's impeachment proceedings, he confounded observers when he said he believed the president had not received a fair trial, cited Scottish law and, instead of voting yes or no, voted "not proven."

His critics -- and they were legion -- said he was just a political opportunist ducking a tough vote before his 1998 re-election, one more example of a fuzzy political philosophy reflecting a lack of principles.

"When expediency meets principle," one prominent Philadelphia attorney grumbled of Mr. Specter, "expediency wins every time."

Still, he used his powerful incumbency to ensure that federal dollars were funneled into every nook and cranny of the commonwealth.

"I think Arlen Specter has done more for the people of Pennsylvania than anyone in the commonwealth's history," said former Gov. Ed Rendell, who was hired by Mr. Specter, then district attorney, in 1968 to work in his office.

In 1998, Mr. Specter faced a relatively weak challenge from Democrat Bill Lloyd, but in 2004, he needed the intervention of President George W. Bush and Mr. Specter's far more conservative Pennsylvania colleague Rick Santorum to help him beat back Mr. Toomey. Faced with a Toomey rematch in 2010 when anti-incumbency fever was spiking, expediency would win again: When he voted with the Democrats in February 2009 for Mr. Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus package -- "the ultimate act of treason," according to one Republican operative -- he essentially burned his bridges with the party to which he'd belonged for 29 years.

A week after that vote, Mr. Specter told the Post-Gazette he had no choice, given the country's dire economic straits and a lack of bipartisanship in the Senate.

"I didn't relish the job of being a negotiator," he said. "I was waiting for someone in the Republican leadership to step forward," and when they didn't, he had to act, he said.

"People value my independence," he added. "Remember, I've cast more than 10,000 votes in my career. At the end of the rainbow, perhaps people will vote for me even if they're unhappy with some of those votes. They don't agree with all of my votes -- and neither do I."

Two months later, Mr. Specter became a Democrat, and the unraveling of his political career began.

Early life

Born in Wichita, Kan., on Feb. 12, 1930, Mr. Specter was the son of Lillie Shanin and Harry Specter, a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine.

At the height of the Great Depression, he would rise at 5 a.m. every morning to help his father, a peddler, sell cantaloupes, with his older sister Shirley. Later, when they moved to Russell, Kan. -- birthplace of Mr. Specter's future Senate colleague Mr. Dole -- Harry Specter bought a junkyard and his son cut up oil derricks and pipelines for scrap, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. They were the only Jews in town. That may have contributed to Mr. Specter's toughness. "I didn't get beat up because I fought back," he said.

The family eventually made its way to Philadelphia. An exceptionally bright student, Mr. Specter earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1951. After graduating from Yale Law School in 1956, he joined the prestigious Philadelphia law firm of Dechert, Price & Rhoads (now Dechert LLP). Before law school, he served as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations during the Korean War.

In the 1960s, Mr. Specter served as that city's assistant district attorney and then as district attorney, where he prosecuted corruption cases against Philadelphia magistrates and the Teamsters.

His political career was launched by the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. An old classmate from Yale called Mr. Specter and asked him to serve on the Warren Commission investigating the shooting. Mr. Specter said yes, assumed a role as an assistant counsel and helped develop the commission's controversial "lone gunman" theory that a single bullet struck both Kennedy and then-Texas Gov. John Connally, and that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin.

When Mr. Specter returned to Philadelphia, the local Republicans recruited him to run for district attorney in 1965, and defying the city's Democratic machine, he won, running as a Republican -- even though he was a registered Democrat.

He skillfully used the D.A.'s office to win wide publicity, and after two terms he decided to run for statewide office. He lost twice -- in the 1976 Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, and in the 1978 Republican primary for governor. But bored by the prospect of practicing law, he doggedly refused to quit, and in 1980, he won the Republican Senate primary, and narrowly defeated Democrat Pete Flaherty.

Life in the Senate

During his tenure in the Senate, Mr. Specter championed Pennsylvania's economy, dramatically increased funding for medical research at the National Institutes of Health -- after his bouts with cancer -- and took an active interest in foreign affairs, meeting with dozens of world leaders, as well as supporting appropriations to fight the global HIV/AIDS pandemic and backing free trade agreements between the U.S. and under-developed countries.

He was not an easy man to work for: intellectually demanding, impatient with mistakes. On those fact-finding trips overseas he insisted that the State Department find squash partners for him. Indeed, he played squash every day -- "workouts [that] were essentially deposits in the health bank," he said, noting his history with cancer and other ailments. He briefly gave up his treasured nightly martini -- Beefeater and vermouth, heavy with olives, that his staffers dubbed the "Arlentini" -- but when his blood tests showed no improvement, he happily resumed drinking it again.

In January 2005 he achieved a lifelong dream: chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The next month, he announced he had been diagnosed with Stage IVB Hodgkin's disease. He underwent chemotherapy but continued working full time in the Senate, writing a book about the experience: "Never Give In: Battling Cancer in the Senate."

It was his second book -- he also authored "Passion for Truth: From Finding JFK's Single Bullet to Questioning Anita Hill to Impeaching Clinton," and published numerous articles on the law during his career.

A year after his defeat, though, he wrote another book, "Life Among the Cannibals: A Political Career, a Tea Party Uprising, and the End of Governing as We Know It,'' a score-settling exercise decrying the increasing polarization of Congress, where both parties "replaced tolerance with purity tests," where fringe elements were purging centrists, and where senators began actively campaigning against members of their own caucus.

"They did it with relish, like cannibals devouring colleagues with condiments," he wrote.

His own cannibalization, as he put it, could be blamed on increasing ideological fervor, but it also was the price he paid for being a senator whose instinct for self-preservation at all costs inspired admiration but not all that much affection.

It was a humiliating experience, and one particularly hurtful moment came during a visit to Carnegie Mellon University in June 2010, shortly after his primary loss.

Mr. Specter hitched a ride from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh on Air Force One, chatting with Mr. Obama near the end of the short flight. The president had endorsed Mr. Specter, recorded a telephone message for him and appeared in advertisements, but didn't visit the state toward the end to campaign for him.

Still, as the president later spoke on campus, Mr. Specter was "a little surprised when he did not acknowledge my presence, especially when he started off thanking Mayor Luke Ravenstahl for meeting him at the airport, looking straight at Ravenstahl and me sitting together in the audience's front row. He acknowledged a number of people, but not me."

It was all the more confounding, Mr. Specter wrote, because the president cited two of the administration's legislative priorities where Mr. Specter's votes were crucial: the economic stimulus and health care reform.

"I'd be less than candid -- and less than conscious -- if I didn't say that it hurt," he wrote.

Defeat, for Pennsylvania's longest-serving senator, a man impatient with tranquility, was devastating, but Mr. Specter persevered. He resumed his law practice with his son Shanin and became an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Last fall he taught a course on the relationship between Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court, prompting the National Jurist to name him as one of the "23 professors to take before you die."

If he perhaps regarded his defeat as a political tragedy, he turned it into comedy -- literally -- performing last year in Philadelphia and New York clubs as a stand-up comic, taking shots at former colleagues and indulging in surprisingly risque jokes.

"I've been in comedy for 30 years," he told audiences, and at one well-received stint at Caroline's Comedy Club in New York earlier this year, he sat backstage after the show, savoring a martini, telling reporters he hoped he would be invited back.

"My dance card is open," said the ever-resilient Mr. Specter.

He is survived by his wife, Joan, and two sons, Shanin and Stephen.

Mr. Specter's funeral will be open to the public and held at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley at noon on Tuesday. Burial will immediately follow at Shalom Memorial Park in Huntingdon Valley.

The family asks that contributions be made in lieu of flowers to Philadelphia University or another charity.

Correction/Clarification: (Published October 17, 2012) The Monday obituary of Sen. Arlen Specter incorrectly stated that Michael D. Langan took a job working for the senator, despite their differing political views. In fact, Mr. Langan declined the job offer, but continued to play squash with Mr. Specter.
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Mackenzie Carpenter: or 412-263-1949. Politics editor James O'Toole and former staff writers Jack Torry and Daniel Malloy contributed. The Philadelphia Inquirer also contributed. First Published October 15, 2012 4:00 AM


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