Former Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, a onetime GOP-er who tried to walk the tightrope and remain a moderate in a Republican Party turning sharply right — and who feel of the tightrope — has died. In his 1960s incarnation as a member of the Warren Commission investigating the 1963 murder of President John F. Kennedy, Jr., he was the author of the still-controversial single bullet theory. He also remains controversial among some for his harsh questioning of law professor Anita Hill, in the Senate Supreme Court nominee hearings that led to the confirmation of Clarence Thomas.
Former U.S. Sen. 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 Sunday. He was 82.
Specter, 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.
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.
Specter was diagnosed in February 2005 with stage IV Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system. Announcing the diagnosis with his trademark doggedness, Specter said: “I have beaten a brain tumor, bypass heart surgery and many tough political opponents and I’m going to beat this, too.”
He wrote of his struggle in a 2008 book, “Never Give In: Battling Cancer in the Senate,” saying he wanted to let others facing similar crises “ought to know they are not alone.”
Cancer handed him “a stark look at mortality” and an “added sense of humility,” Specter told The Associated Press.
Intellectual and stubborn, Specter played squash nearly every day into his mid-70s and liked to unwind with a martini or two at night. He took the lead on a wide spectrum of issues and was no stranger to controversy.
Born in Wichita, Kan., on Feb. 12, 1930, Specter spent summers toiling in his father’s junkyard in Russell, Kan., where he knew another future senator — Bob Dole. The junkyard thrived during World War II, allowing Specter’s father to send his four children to college.
And, indeed, Specter was of that “old school” GOPer — the GOPer who was willing to reach across the aisle, and talk to and make deals with Democrats. In recent years partisans in both parties have come to view compromise as a dirty word and a sign of weakness — and betrayal if coming from someone on their side. That meant that in the past someone who could make deals was perceived as effective and got support from both sides; Specter found he was often reviled and distrusted by both parties.
The veteran Pennsylvania senator had overcome numerous serious illnesses over the past two decades, including a brain tumor and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He had been in the public eye from the 1960s, when he first gained attention as a member of the Warren Commission.
Specter was elected to the Senate in 1980 and represented Pennsylvania in that chamber longer than anyone in history.
All along, his politically moderate image fit hand-in-glove with the politically blue Northeast, both its Democratic centrists and its liberal Republicans.
He had long been one of America’s most prominent Jewish politicians, a rare Republican in a category dominated by Democrats over the decades.
His name is synonymous with Pennsylvania, an idiosyncratic state that pushes and pulls between the two parties, and his home, the staunchly Democratic city of Philadelphia.
“One of the few true wild cards of Washington politics,” a 2006 article in Philadelphia magazine called him, “reviled by those on both the right and the left.”
“Charming and churlish, brilliant and pedantic, he can be fiercely independent, entertainingly eccentric, and simply maddening,” the article said.
G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll and professor of pubic affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, said Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way” could apply to Specter.
“There isn’t any doubt in many respects he was an unusual politician,” Madonna said. “He didn’t look at polls. He didn’t track how his comments were playing out in the press. …
“He was fundamentally a pragmatist who could bend with the times,” Madonna said, and he believed greatly that government could help people.
“The Republicanism in his day, it was a different kind of Republican. He was a Philadelphian, and not into that staunchly conservative Republicanism that we see” today.
A former district attorney of Philadelphia, Specter showed off his mastery of the fine points of law while serving on the Senate Judiciary Committee during his entire 30-year congressional career.
His stubborn independence and flashes of contempt for those who disagreed with him earned him the nickname “Snarlin’ Arlen.” Weighing the removal of President Bill Clinton on two counts of impeachment in 1999, Specter criticized the “pseudo- trial” the Senate had held and, citing Scottish law, chose to vote “not proven” rather than guilty or not guilty.
He participated in the confirmation hearings of 13 nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court, including, notably, that of Clarence Thomas in 1991.
In televised hearings that inflamed racial and gender divisions and riveted a national audience, Specter became one of the harshest questioners and outspoken doubters of Anita Hill, a law professor. She testified that Thomas had repeatedly talked about sex and pornographic films while he was her supervisor at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The Senate narrowly confirmed Thomas, 52 to 48, with Specter among those who voted yes.
In a 2001 interview with C-Span’s Brian Lamb, Specter said his failure to grasp the degree of animosity he had earned for his aggressive questioning of Hill almost cost him re-election in 1992. Still, he defended his tough stance toward Hill.
“Now, what occurred between Clarence Thomas and Professor Anita Hill, I don’t know,” he said. “But I do know that she had to be questioned about how she could have such a continuing, detailed, friendly relationship with him if what had happened had been so bad, had been harassment.”
In another high-profile Supreme Court confirmation battle, Specter was among six Republicans who joined Democrats in 1987 in rejecting Robert Bork, who had been nominated by President Ronald Reagan.