U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter dies at 82
Arlen Specter, a canny Republican moderate who provided key votes on numerous critical issues during his five terms in the Senate and who later became a Democrat in a futile attempt to hang on to his seat, has died at age 82.
Mr. Specter overcame numerous serious illnesses over the past two decades, including a brain tumor and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was diagnosed six weeks ago with the new form of cancer.
He died at his home in Philadelphia from complications of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, his son Shanin told the Associated Press.
In a statement this afternoon, President Barack 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."
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."
U.S. Sen. Pat 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."
Mr. Specter was known for his impressive intellect, his boundless energy, and his searing ambition. He liked to say that the secret to his political success was his determination to visit all of Pennsylvania's 67 counties. The issues changed from year to year but this town hall ritual was the same through the decades as Mr. Specter circumnavigated the state's counties.
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.
He reveled in his independence, often delighting in spurning the overtures of Republican presidents to vote as he pleased, and wasn't afraid to show constituents 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."
He outlasted many of his political opponents, but in the end lost his seat after switching parties.
Born in Wichita, Kan., in 1930, Mr. Specter was the son of Lillie Shanin and Harry Specter, a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine.
Mr. Specter learned to work hard as a young boy; he would rise at 5 a.m. every morning to help his father sell cantaloupes. Seven decades later, he still managed to outwork friends and enemies. Even in non-election years, he would relentlessly travel the small towns of Pennsylvania.
An exceptionally bright student, Mr. Specter earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1951, and then a law degree from Yale Law School in 1956. He then joined the prestigious Philadelphia law firm of Dechert, Price & Rhoads (now Dechert LLP). Before law school, he served as a second lieutenant in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations during the Korean War.
Mr. Specter served as assistant district attorney and district attorney of Philadelphia, where he prosecuted corruption cases against Philadelphia magistrates and the Teamsters.
His entry to politics was triggered 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 theory that a single bullet struck both Kennedy and then-Texas Gov. John Connally, and that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin.
When he returned to Philadelphia, local Republicans recruited him to run for district attorney. Even though he was a registered Democrat, he accepted the offer and won election in 1965.
He used that office to win wide publicity, which gave him a chance to win statewide. Twice he lost state races -- in the 1976 Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, and in the 1978 Republican primary for governor. But he refused to quit; his friends say he would have been bored by practicing law. In 1980, he ran again, won the primary, and narrowly defeated Democrat Pete Flaherty.
He went on to serve five consecutive terms. He served on the Senate Judiciary Committee starting in 1981, and was chairman from 2005 to 2007.
In addition to his work on the Judiciary Committee and other committee appointments, Mr. Specter was chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from 1995 to 1997, and served as a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
During his tenure in the Senate, Mr. Specter championed Pennsylvania's economy 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 underdeveloped countries.
He was diagnosed with stage IVB Hodgkin's disease in 2005 but continued working full-time in the Senate. His wrote a book about the experience, "Never Give In: Battling Cancer in the Senate."
"I went through a couple of bouts with Hodgkin's, didn't miss a vote, presided over the hearings for Chief Justice [John] Roberts and Justice [Samuel] Alito, lost all my hair. You know my story. I kept getting letters about my hair style more than my public policy."
He was indefatigable, with a crushing schedule that included his chosen sport, squash -- his staff had to round up opponents for him wherever he went.
"I have adopted Satchel Paige's view," he said at age 80. "If you didn't know your age, how old you were, how old would you think you were? And I choose 37."
Mr. Specter also wrote "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. In a third book, the memoir "Life Among the Cannibals,'' Mr. Specter discussed the increasingly acrimonious atmosphere in Washington and acknowledged psychic bruises in his long career.
Mr. Specter recovered from many near political deaths.
In one of his few political miscalculations, Mr. Specter aggressively questioned Oklahoma University law professor Anita Hill during confirmation hearings for now-Justice Clarence Thomas. Ms. Hill had accused Justice Thomas of sexually harassing her when the two worked for the federal government in the 1980s. When Mr. Specter charged Ms. Hill with "perjury," feminist organizations that had backed him in the past erupted in fury.
He was written off by many Republicans as politically dead against the energetic challenge of Democrat Lynn Yeakel. Feminists and civil rights leaders were enraged with him, conservatives, as always, had little use for him. He was in such dire shape that Shanin Specter, who ran his campaign, warned him, "If you're real lucky and she makes lots of mistakes, you might win."
But win Mr. Specter did, running a flawless campaign, shrewdly distancing himself from Republican President George Bush, and reminding voters of his record of health care, civil rights, abortion rights, and anti-crime initiatives.
"Arlen never runs a bad campaign," said William J. Green, a Pittsburgh Republican consultant. "I will go to my grave saying that the best campaign I've ever seen in this state was his 1992 re-election campaign. Bill Clinton carried this state by 500,000 votes and Arlen still won. It was incredible."
He had an uncanny knack of knowing where the majority of Pennsylvania voters stood, blending an odd brew of conservative and liberal ideas. He touted the death penalty for convicted murderers and preached fiscal restraint. Yet he favored abortion rights for women and more federal money for child immunization and prenatal care. And he always maintained a healthy distrust of handing over too much power to the states.
His critics -- and Arlen Specter produced a legion of critics -- often complained that his fuzzy political philosophy and last-minute votes only reflected his lack of principles. "When expediency meets principle," one prominent Philadelphia attorney grumbled of Mr. Specter, "expediency wins every time."
During his years in the Senate, he always returned by train every weekend to Philadelphia, where he resided.
Nearly all of those years, the political moderate was a member of the GOP, but in the end couldn't survive the highly partisan politics that came to dominate Congress.
Fearing a sure Republican primary loss to Pat Toomey in 2009, Mr. Specter became a Democrat, saying Republicans had moved too far to the right. The move gave Democrats a 60-seat filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. He supported President Barack Obama on several issues, including a crucial vote on the health care reform law.
When he ran for re-election in 2010, though, Mr. Specter couldn't fend off a primary challenge from the left by U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak and lost in the Democratic primary, ending his political career.
After the loss, he moved from the halls of Congress to those of academia, teaching at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Mr. Specter also returned to his law practice after leaving the Senate.
He is survived by his wife, Joan, and two sons, Shanin and Stephen.
First Published October 14, 2012 1:17 pm