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Sen. Specter dies; his fighting spirit praised

Arlen Specter, 82, the longest-serving United States senator in Pennsylvania history, a driven, often contentious figure who placed himself at the center of national controversies for a half-century, from the Kennedy-assassination investigation in the 1960s to the passage of the economic stimulus package in 2009, died Sunday morning at his Philadelphia home.

Arlen Specter was Pennsylvania’s longest-serving U.S. senator. Specter passed away at 11:39 a.m. Sunday from complications of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. (April Saul / Staff Photographer)
Arlen Specter was Pennsylvania’s longest-serving U.S. senator. Specter passed away at 11:39 a.m. Sunday from complications of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. (April Saul / Staff Photographer)Read more

Former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, 82, a driven, often contentious figure who placed himself at the center of national controversies for a half-century, from the Kennedy-assassination investigation in the 1960s to the passage of the economic stimulus package in 2009, died Sunday morning at his home in East Falls.

Specter, who was Pennsylvania's longest-serving senator, with 30 years in Washington, died at 11:39 a.m. from complications of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, his family said. He had announced Aug. 28 that he was again fighting cancer.

A man who spent his career defying the odds in politics, Specter for many years also defied the odds in medicine. He survived a half-dozen bouts with life-threatening illness. He had brain tumors in 1993 and 1996, and heart bypass surgery in 1998. He had cancerous Hodgkin's disease in 2005 and again in 2008.

"Arlen Specter was always a fighter," President Obama said in a statement Sunday from the White House that praised the former senator as "fiercely independent - never putting party or ideology ahead of the people he was chosen to serve."

Vice President Biden, a former Delaware senator who often was Specter's riding companion on Amtrak trips to Washington, said "Specter was a great Senator who lived his life the way he died, with dignity and courage."

Former Gov. Ed Rendell said Specter's fiery resolve was on display when he last visited him at the hospital four weeks ago.

"He was his usual cantankerous self, and I just assumed he was going to make it, because he's made it all these other times," Rendell said Sunday. "He was full of piss and vinegar, and he was his usual self."

Rendell had only high praise for the man who once hired him to work in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, calling him a mentor and a friend.

"No public servant or elected official has done more for the people of Pennsylvania in their career, with the possible exception of Benjamin Franklin," Rendell said.

Personal toughness seemed to keep Specter going. He said it came from his immigrant father, Harry, who walked across Europe in his teens, fought in World War I, and, with his son on the truck seat beside him, peddled melons during the Depression.

Elected to the Senate in 1980, 1986, 1992, 1998, and 2004, Specter was a statewide official in Pennsylvania for a longer period than anyone else in any office, as near as can be determined. He was the state's only five-term senator, serving during five presidencies from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama.

He wanted history to remember him, and with coauthors he wrote three book-length memoirs.

As a moderate and independent Republican - though a Democrat very early in his career and a Democrat again at the end - Specter had no perennial base of support on which he could count election after election. He had to piece together a winning coalition each time.

He was an abortion-rights supporter in a party that mostly squeezed out that point of view. He typically had a sizable amount of labor support, which wasn't always the oddity for a Republican that it is today.

He found it harder and harder to hold his ground in a GOP that was leaning further and further right. Three years ago, he concluded he finally had come to the end of the line as a Republican.

He had made himself a pariah among conservatives by casting one of three Republican votes in Congress for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus plan. He felt it had saved the nation from a second Depression, albeit at the cost of adding more than $800 billion to the national debt. He called his vote the most important of his career.

At Obama's urging, he switched to the Democratic Party for the 2010 Senate election, but was defeated in that party's primary by then-Rep. Joe Sestak, a Delaware County congressman. Sestak lost the general election for the Senate to former Republican U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey.

Specter felt hurt that Obama had not done more to help him as a show of gratitude, not just for his stimulus vote but also for his support of the president's health-care overhaul. His party switch in April 2009 helped give Democrats a filibusterproof 60-vote majority in the Senate.

He quoted President Harry S. Truman's maxim, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."

Except for a late-career stint as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Specter was not a day-to-day powerhouse in the Senate. He accrued his influence as a swing voter, a man in the middle who might be persuaded to side with either party.

He angered the right with his key role in the 1987 Senate defeat of the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork, a battle that coined the term to be borked.

He angered the left during the 1991 confirmation hearing for Justice Clarence Thomas, in which his grilling of Anita Hill, who had accused Thomas of sexual harassment, made him the arch-nemesis of feminists.

He always voted on principle, he said. But he also knew how to negotiate for his vote.

Although he insisted there was "no quid pro quo," he won a concession to add $10 billion to the stimulus package for the National Institutes of Health, a pet cause.

Rendell, first as Philadelphia mayor and then governor, often called upon Specter for help. It wasn't always to get something from Congress. Sometimes it was to block an action, such as cuts to school-lunch programs or community-development block grants.

"As good as he could be at playing offense, what he did best over the course of his career was to play defense," Rendell said. "Arlen, as a Republican, did more to protect the people of Philadelphia and the people of Pennsylvania from harm being wreaked upon them than anyone else."

With his longevity in the Senate, Specter was adept at one of the traditional jobs of a home-state legislator: delivering the sort of federal aid that is scorned as pork when it goes to someone else but is hailed as a lifeline when it comes to you.

If Reagan was "the Teflon president," Specter said, he was the Velcro senator. Controversy stuck to him.

"It had been said that I alienated the entire electorate," he wrote. "It may be that a senator cannot do his job without angering everyone sometimes."

Specter's father started his American life in Philadelphia, working in "a tailor's sweatshop," his son said. Harry Specter then gravitated west to St. Joseph, Mo., where he met 16-year-old Lillie Shanin, who would become his wife. (Arlen Specter named one of his two sons Shanin, after his mother.)

The courtship was interrupted when World War I broke out. Harry Specter returned to Europe as a soldier in the American Expeditionary Force. He was seriously wounded and limped for the rest of his life.

In 1932, amid the Depression, thousands of veterans marched on Washington to claim a $500 bonus they felt was owed them. Harry Specter wanted to go, his son wrote, but "didn't have the money to join them."

U.S. troops marched into the veterans' camp and burned their tents. Hundreds were injured.

Filled with his father's sense of injustice, Arlen Specter would forever say he went to Washington to right the wrongs done to ordinary people - "to get my father's bonus."

He was born on Feb. 12, 1930, Abraham Lincoln's birthday, in Wichita, Kan. From age 12, he lived in Russell, Kan., where he and his two older sisters were the only Jewish children in town.

Harry sold fruit in the summer and blankets in the winter. He also ran a scrap yard.

Specter said his father taught him not just hard work, but also integrity.

The pair moved quickly because local grocers didn't appreciate the traveling Jewish salesman who took some of their customers. The grocers often called the local sheriff, and the Specters would be hustled out of town.

"When you're Jewish, you're different," Specter once said. "But I was always fiercely Jewish. I was proud to be Jewish. It was what I was. It was me."

(After Harry Specter died in 1964, his family fulfilled his wish to be buried in Israel.)

The father never had formal education; his son would become an Ivy Leaguer.

At Russell High School, he was introduced to one of the passions of his life - debating. He was on the high school debate team, which won the state championship.

"Debate was the best education conceivable," he wrote. "It taught us how to speak fluently, to think on our feet, organize extemporaneously, do research, and deal with public-policy questions."

He spent one year at the University of Oklahoma, then transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate in 1951.

After a stint in the Air Force, he married Joan Lois Levy, whom he had met at a Penn dance and would remain with for the rest of his life. (Joan Specter would go into politics herself, becoming a four-term member of Philadelphia City Council.)

The newlyweds went off to New Haven. Conn., where Specter was a student at Yale Law School and an editor on the law journal.

With his Penn-Yale credentials, he landed a job at a prestigious corporate law firm in Philadelphia. But he soon opted for lesser pay - and greater excitement - as a prosecutor in the District Attorney's Office.

In 1962, he made a name for himself by prosecuting six Teamsters officials from Philadelphia Local 107 on charges of defrauding the union treasury. It was one of the longest and most complex trials in Pennsylvania history, and it came to the attention of Robert F. Kennedy, then the U.S. attorney general.

After President John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, Specter was invited to join the Warren Commission as a staff member.

One big obstacle to a commission's eventual conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone was the fact that Kennedy, in the backseat of a car, and Texas Gov. John Connally, in the front seat, had been shot from seemingly different angles at the same time. How could one man have done that?

Specter came up with the idea that a "single bullet" struck Kennedy from behind, passed through the president's throat, hit the governor in the back, smashed a rib, shattered a wrist, and came to rest in his thigh.

The bullet later was found on a stretcher at Dallas' Parkland Hospital, looking to critics of the Specter theory as if it had never hit anything.

Generations of conspiracy theorists have mocked it as "the magic bullet," a term Specter himself used impishly as a chapter title in his first memoir, Passion for Truth, in 2000.

He never wavered in the conviction he was right.

"I now call it a single-bullet conclusion," he wrote in Life Among the Cannibals, the last of his three books, published in March. "It began as a theory, but when a theory is established by facts, it deserves to be called a conclusion."

After the Warren Commission, Specter returned home to Philadelphia. Within days, he accepted an offer to lead a state investigation into corruption involving the 28 Philadelphia magistrates who presided over the city's minor civil and criminal courts.

With the notoriety he gained from that, he decided to run for district attorney. Rebuffed by the leaders of his own Democratic party, he was recruited to run as a Republican by GOP leader William A. Meehan, who lusted for the chance to win a major office in a Democratic city.

Meehan raised the money for the campaign (a then-huge $550,000), and Specter worked the voters, talking to them in the Kansas drawl he would never lose.

Specter remained a Democrat throughout the campaign, switching to Republican after he had won. That brought charges of political expediency - the same allegation he would face 35 years later when he switched back to being a Democrat.

He had hardly started as D.A., he wrote, when Meehan asked him to run for mayor in 1967.

As a long-shot GOP nominee, he was defeated by incumbent Democrat James H.J. Tate. But he had kept his job as district attorney, and so remained a force in the city.

He was reelected to a second term in 1969, and still seemed on track for higher office.

Then the bottom fell out. Running for a third term, he lost to Democrat F. Emmett Fitzpatrick. Running for the U.S. Senate in '76, he lost in the Republican primary. Running for governor in '78, he again lost in the primary.

Charles Robbins, who coauthored two of the memoirs, said Specter was never good at self-reflection. He could remember vote counts and the fine points of legislation for decades. But discussing his feelings was another matter.

Robbins recalled that when the pair were working on Specter's final memoir, "what he would give me was what he thought. He'd say, 'I know I'm not giving you what you want. What you want is how I feel. This is really the best I can do.' "

The three straight defeats in the 1970s might have caused another man to quit politics. But they seemed only to drive Specter harder. When the next plum job came up - a Senate seat in 1980 - he jumped right back in.

His previous campaigns, however unsuccessful, had made him widely known across Pennsylvania. He outspent his Democratic foe, former Pittsburgh Mayor Pete Flaherty. He also outworked him, traveling to all 67 counties.

On Nov. 4, 1980, he was elected to the Senate with 51 percent of the vote.

"It's been a long, tough struggle, and it was worth every step of the way," Specter said on election night.

He was off to Washington.

Often described as the world's greatest deliberative body, the Senate was an ideal realm for the former debate champ from Russell High.

He loved the thrust and parry, the arcane rules, the chance to stamp matters of national importance.

"Center stage" - that was the title of his book chapter on his arrival in the Senate.

He traveled the world as a sort of independent ambassador. When an issue interested him, all he had to do was hold a hearing and the witnesses would come. If he had an announcement, the press would be there.

On his weekly trips from Philadelphia to Washington, where he had a Georgetown condo, his staffers would take him to 30th Street Station and pick him up at Union Station. He enjoyed rubdowns in the Senate gym.

He could help favored causes, and favored people, too.

As a regular Amtrak rider, he helped preserve federal funding for passenger rail service.

He helped Rendell's wife, Marjorie, become a judge of the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia and, later, an appellate court judge.

A legendary hard worker, he demanded the same from his staff. More than once he made published lists of tough bosses in Washington.

Robbins, a former staff member, said Specter was tough indeed.

"But what gets lost under the moniker 'Snarlin' Arlen' is a code and a decency," he said. "He would say, 'I hired you, I brought you into the inner circle, because you are good.' . . . The last thing you want to do for a parent is disappoint. It was like that with him."

A sports fan, he leavened his image with frequent appearances on WIP radio in which he bantered about the Eagles with morning host Angelo Cataldi. He also was sometimes a guest of Howard Stern on national radio.

It was on the Senate Judiciary Committee that Specter made the biggest impact - and generated the most controversy.

That committee oversees the confirmation process for federal judicial nominees, including Supreme Court nominees.

In 1987, President Reagan nominated Bork, a brilliant, hard-core conservative, for the Supreme Court.

The entire Democratic coalition, including groups representing minorities, women and unions, massed against Bork. Conservatives, including the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, got behind him.

With its civil-rights and abortion-battle overtones, the fight fanned the culture wars, and Specter was in the middle of it as Bork's lead interrogator.

Arthur Makadon, a Philadelphia lawyer and Specter confidante, remembers: "Bork was smart but not as penetratingly smart as Arlen. Arlen beat Bork on Bork's turf. No one else in the Senate could have done that.. . .Arlen undressed him in public view. That was Arlen at his best."

When Spdecter finally announced he would vote against Bork, it helped tip the balance, and Bork was rejected, 58-42. Conservatives would never forgot who had slipped in the knife.

As the Almanac of American Politics noted in its 2010 edition, Specter's independence often earned respect, but not friends.

"He has sided with conservatives on some divisive issues and with liberals on others, building up no permanent credit with either," the almanac said.

What liberals long held against him took place in 1991. Specter was assigned to question law professor Hill in the divisive confirmation hearing for Thomas, another Republican Supreme Court nominee.

Specter doubted that Hill was telling the truth in accusing Thomas of lewd sexual harassment during an earlier period. The tone of his questions - maybe it was just Specter being Specter - was cold, accusatory, prosecutorial.

Many women, watching on TV, decided that here was another man bullying a woman.

A well-dressed woman in the hallway sneered at him, "God should strike you dead." A female aide to another senator made an obscene gesture at him. By the time he got back to his office, new phone lines had to be installed and 40 staffers imported to handle the nasty calls. Liberals were already angry even before he voted to confirm Thomas.

Not long after the Thomas hearings, Specter had to stand for reelection.

Conservatives, still upset over the Bork hearings, supported an antiabortion candidate in the 1992 Republican primary.

Specter brushed aside the challenge, but the unexpected survivor of a five-candidate Democratic primary turned out to have perfect credentials in what became known as "the year of the woman."

She was Lynn Yeakel, 50, of Delaware County, the founder of Women's Way, an advocacy group.

Yeakel ran a TV ad that showed Hill being grilled by Specter and asked, "Did this make you as angry as it made me?" Another ad called Specter "the most obnoxious man in the Senate."

The incumbent's instinct was to strike back. His own commercial pointed out that Yeakel had paid 10 years of back taxes to the City of Philadelphia just before getting into the race.

Specter won the election by a ratio of 49-46.

Said Rendell: "He never said this, but if there was one thing he probably regretted, it was the tone of the Anita Hill interrogation. He would say it was fair, it was all relevant, but I think he regretted the tone."

When Specter campaigned briefly for president in 1996, his effort was not taken seriously by the media or political party leaders.

His next foray into national news illustrated his often-maddening contrariness.

It was 1999, and President Bill Clinton was on trial in the Senate for his actions in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Specter believed Clinton's foes had made up their minds without hearing the evidence and were rushing to judgment.

He couldn't bring himself to vote "no" on conviction, so he came up with "not proven," which he said was a verdict under Scottish law.

The nation seemed baffled, then laughed. Rendell would say years later, "Arlen wasn't a wuss, but he wussed out on that."

Specter's battles gradually were wearing him down politically.

The right had the longest memory, and in 2004 Specter barely survived a GOP primary challenge from a strong conservative - former Rep. Toomey.

After the election, Specter expected his Senate seniority to be rewarded with the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee. But conservatives again fought him, and it took support from President George W. Bush for him to win the post.

He later rewarded Bush by steering the Senate confirmation of his two nominees for the Supreme Court, John Roberts and Samuel Alito.

Bush was gone and Obama was in office by February 2009 when the stimulus came up. Specter's support was seen by conservatives as the final apostasy.

Two months later, Specter announced he was becoming a Democrat. He said he had come to feel philosophically more in tune with Democrats, but also noted that the switch gave him a better shot at reelection the next year.

That summer, like many senators and representatives, he held town-hall meetings during the congressional recess. One such meeting in Lebanon, Pa., drew national attention when it landed on Page One of the New York Times and The Inquirer.

Angry voter after angry voter - many part of the tea-party movement - blasted him for the stimulus, for his views on abortion and unions, and for even considering the Obama health-care bill.

Some got so red-faced and in his face that Specter's security team became nervous.

"This is about the dismantling of this country," the Times quoted one woman. "We don't want this country to turn into Russia."

"One day, God is going to stand before you, and he's going to judge you," a man said.

Democratic leaders tried to clear the 2010 primary field for Specter by easing out Sestak, who had been campaigning for months. But Sestak would not go. He ran a TV ad that showed a devious-looking Specter saying, "My change in party will enable me to be reelected." A narrator then told voters: "Arlen Specter switched parties to save one job - his, not yours."

Out of step with Republicans, never really in tune with Democrats, Specter lost.

He had predicted that only he could beat Toomey, who was again the GOP nominee, saying Sestak was too liberal. And Toomey won the general election that fall.

Specter expressed his bitterness toward Obama in Life Among the Cannibals, recalling that at one campaign stop in Pittsburgh the president had every opportunity to thank him for his stimulus and health-care votes before a large crowd, but passed.

"I was a little surprised when he did not acknowledge my presence," he wrote. "He acknowledged a number of people, but not me."

A man whose whole life had been politics began to look ahead.

He went on to write his third book, to teach a course at Penn Law School, to dabble in his hobby - standup comedy. (Jackie Mason was his comic idol.)

A man who prided himself on eating right and playing squash each morning - and who believed a martini was good for you - Specter was plagued with health problems on and off for almost two decades.

His second book, Never Give In, partly the story of his surviving Hodgkin's disease, had been in publication for just a month in 2008 when the cancer returned.

He seemed again to have beaten the disease. But in August, after a four-year interval, he revealed that once more he was being treated for cancer.

What could be seen as his final words to America were contained in his last book, in which he bemoaned the increasing intolerance and unwillingness to compromise in politics.

He was never an ideologue. The old debater could always argue both sides of an issue. No one, he was sure, had all the answers.

"In some quarters, compromise has become a dirty word," he wrote. "Ideological purity has become a precondition for support. Politics is no longer the art of the possible when senators are intransigent in their positions. Polarization of the political parties has followed."

A funeral service is scheduled for noon Tuesday, Oct. 16, at Har Zion Temple, 1500 Hagys Ford Rd., Penn Valley. It will be open to the public, although cameras and recording devices will be forbidden. Interment will follow at Shalom Memorial Park, Huntingdon Valley.

Contributions may be made to Philadelphia University, where he had an office, or another charity.

Inquirer staff writer Maria Panaritis and former staff writer Ralph Cipriano contributed to this article.