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A Fighter To The End, Arlen Specter Seemed To Thrive On Controversy

Sen. Arlen Specter speaks to the media at the base of Air Force One in Maryland in 2010. Specter died Sunday at the age of 82.
Saul Loeb
AFP/Getty Images
Sen. Arlen Specter speaks to the media at the base of Air Force One in Maryland in 2010. Specter died Sunday at the age of 82.

Imagine a lawyer's lawyer, a fighter's fighter and a pol's pol. Now imagine one person as all three. That was Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who died Sunday at age 82.

Over the course of three decades in the U.S. Senate (1981-2011), Specter came to personify the pragmatic, independent operator who sized up the substance and politics of every issue for himself. His vote could be one of the hardest to get, and often the one that made the difference.

"I believe that my duty is to follow my conscience and vote what I think is in the best interest of the country," he said in 2009, "and the political risks will have to abide."

Switching Teams

He began his legal career as a Democrat but switched to the Republican Party when he began running for office. Yet in 2009, anticipating a tough primary re-election ahead in 2010, he supported the $787 billion fiscal stimulus plan of President Obama and then switched parties.

As a Democrat in 2010, he also supported the health care law that became known as Obamacare. The president responded by backing Specter in the Democratic primary that year, but Specter lost the nomination to Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak.

At many junctures in Specter's Senate career, his party loyalty was called into question, including the moment when he was ascending to the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2005. But Specter managed to reassure his GOP colleagues that his unorthodox brand of conservatism — including his support for abortion rights — would not interfere with the party's plans for the federal judiciary. Indeed, Specter was able to shepherd President George W. Bush's nominees — John Roberts and Samuel Alito — to Senate confirmation later that year.

Always Close To Controversy

Specter was most widely known for his interrogation of Anita Hill in the 1991 hearings on Clarence Thomas' appointment to the Supreme Court. Specter's relentless examination of Hill's charges of sexual harassment helped turn the tide against Hill and secure Thomas' eventual confirmation.

But long before that, he was known as a dogged prosecutor and legal combatant. In an earlier Supreme Court confirmation battle over the 1987 nomination of Robert H. Bork, Specter's close questioning and negative vote were major factors in Bork's defeat.

Specter often seemed to thrive on controversy. When still a young attorney in Philadelphia, he took a staff job with the Warren Commission investigating the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy. In 1964 he was tasked with presenting and defending the commission's "single-bullet theory" that held assassin Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone.

'I Intend To Win'

From childhood to his final years, Specter was known for his hard work and indomitable ambition. He was born in Wichita, Kan., a birthplace he shared with his Senate contemporary Daniel Patrick Moynihan (although neither lived there long). Specter won a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, graduated and served two years in the Air Force during the Korean War.

He graduated from Yale Law School in 1956 and was elected district attorney in Philadelphia in 1965. While holding that job, he ran for mayor and lost. In 1973 he lost his bid for renomination as district attorney. Thereafter, he twice sought the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, losing in the primary in 1976 and 1978. On his third try, in 1980, Specter was nominated and elected.

In his first Senate years, he was something of an anomaly, a moderate Republican from the northeast in the midst of the "Sagebrush Rebellion" dominated by Westerners and acolytes of the newly inaugurated President Ronald Reagan. But this allowed Specter to maneuver in the interstices between the two parties and their several regional and ideological factions.

Specter was neither an easy man to work for nor a congenial adversary. He was sometimes called "Snarlin' Arlen," a persona he did not seem to mind. He did not ingratiate himself with other senators and was not a logical candidate for the chamber's in-house leadership ladder. But he did see himself as a factor in presidential politics and declared his candidacy for the White House in 1995. That campaign did not attract much media attention or financial backing, and Specter dropped out before the primaries began in 1996.

Specter also proved himself dauntless in yet another dimension. In the 1990s, he was treated twice for a brain tumor and underwent heart bypass surgery. He was treated for non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2002 and 2008, still maintaining his full Senate schedule and routine of squash games. His office announced the disease had returned in August. Specter, at 82, called it "another fight I intend to win."

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for
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