Longtime senator admired, reviled for maverick votes
WASHINGTON – Arlen Specter, who in 30 years representing Pennsylvania in the Senate offended Republicans and Democrats in almost equal measures with maverick votes and a frank cockiness that finally ended his career in politics, died Sunday at his home in Philadelphia. He was 82.
His death was confirmed by his former campaign manager, Chris Nicholas.
Specter, who had a number of major illnesses in recent years, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, was a hard-driving former prosecutor described even by some admirers as sarcastic, rough-hewn, demanding and abrasive.
His career in public life began as an influential young investigator of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and essentially ended with a crucial vote for President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan. His biggest mark, however, was made on nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court as a member and briefly chairman of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee.
He provided the coup de grace that finally killed the nomination of his own party’s conservative darling, Robert Bork, in 1987 and, in penance, wielded the sword that won narrow confirmation for conservative hero Clarence Thomas in 1991 by attacking the credibility of Thomas’ accuser, law professor Anita Hill.
Specter won no lasting gratitude from either liberals or conservatives in the process, and he especially alienated women with his attacks on Hill. His lurching from side to side, from vote to vote, from primary to general elections, and the increasing conservatism of his adopted Republican Party, finally caught up with him in 2010.
After yet another “betrayal” of Republicans on the 2009 stimulus plan, he was forced to make the most dramatic leap in a career that was full of them. But this time he did not make it across the chasm.
Facing defeat in the 2010 Republican primary election, Specter surprised the nation by announcing in April 2009 that he was switching parties – for a second time. (In 1965 he switched from Democrat to Republican after winning election as Philadelphia district attorney on the Republican ticket in an end-run around the city’s Democratic machine.)
His Senate change delivered a veto-proof majority there to Obama, but not for long. Pennsylvania Democrats, many of whom had voted against him for years, refused to accept his final conversion, particularly after he said in his characteristically frank way that “my change in party will enable me to get re-elected.” He avoided the Republican primary but lost the Democratic primary.
Specter was born Feb. 12, 1930, in Wichita, Kan., the son of a peddler and junkyard owner, and raised in the only Jewish family in Russell, Kan.
After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Pennsylvania in 1951 with a bachelor’s degree in international relations, he served in the Air Force. In 1953, he married the former Joan Levy. She survives him, along with their sons Shanin and Stephen, and four grandchildren.
He graduated from Yale Law School in 1956 and later went to work for the Warren Commission, where he is credited with developing the “single-bullet theory” which helped the commission conclude that a lone assassin had killed Kennedy in 1963.
In two terms as district attorney in Philadelphia in the 1960s, he made a name for himself by bringing corruption cases but also scored political points by prosecuting unpopular Penn students during the student turmoil of the day. In Pennsylvania he lost races for Philadelphia mayor, governor, senate and re-election as district attorney before finally winning his Senate seat in 1980. He would hold it longer than any other Pennsylvanian. He ran for the presidency in 1996.
Specter wielded an influential swing vote in the Senate. But he particularly distinguished himself, for better or sometimes worse, during his 14 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, when he habitually asked probing questions of nominees from both parties instead of succumbing to the rhetorical approach favored by his colleagues.
Specter, at least compared with other Republicans, was a champion of civil rights, women’s rights, some gay rights, and education. He said in 2004 that he would oppose judicial nominees who would end the right to an abortion. That comment almost cost him his cherished chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee in 2005, but he agreed to toe the line on Republican nominees, which he did for two years until Republicans lost the Senate. “Nine lives? I think I have 19,” Specter said of that latest escape.
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