Arlen Specter, the irascible senator from Pennsylvania who was at the center of many of the Senate’s most divisive legal battles but lost his seat in 2010 after quitting the Republican Party to become a Democrat, died Sunday at his home in Pennsylvania.
The cause was complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, said his son Shanin. Specter had previously fought Hodgkin’s disease, and had survived both a brain tumor and heart bypass surgery. He was 82.
Hard-bitten and tenacious yet ever the centrist, Specter was a part of American public life for more than four decades. A native Kansan, he had graduated from high school in Russell, Kan., and called it “home” even during his years in Pennsylvania.
As an ambitious young lawyer for the Warren Commission, he took credit for originating the theory that a single bullet, fired by a lone gunman, had killed President John F. Kennedy.
In the Senate, where he was long regarded as its sharpest legal mind, he led the Judiciary Committee through one of its most tumultuous periods, even while battling Hodgkin’s disease in 2005 and losing his hair to chemotherapy.
Yet he may be remembered best for his party switch in 2009 and the subsequent campaign that cost him the Senate seat he had held for almost 30 years. After 44 years as a Republican, Specter, who began his career as a Democrat, changed sides because he feared a challenge from the right. He wound up losing in a Democratic primary; the seat stayed in Republican hands.
One of the few remaining Republican moderates on Capitol Hill at a time when the party had turned sharply to the right, Specter confounded fellow Republicans at every turn. He unabashedly supported Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal, and championed biomedical and embryonic stem cell research long before he received his cancer diagnosis.
To the residents of Russell, Specter was the other local senator behind favorite son Bob Dole, who was Kansas’ U.S. senator for many years. Spector returned to visit family nearly every year and the two men held a joint reception in Russell in June 2011.
Both also made a bid for the White House in 1995, with Dole gaining the Republican nomination.
In that race, Specter denounced the Christian right as an extremist “fringe” — an unorthodox tactic for a candidate trying to win votes in a Republican primary. The campaign was short-lived; Specter ended it when he ran out of cash. Years later, he said wryly, “I was the only one of nine people in New Hampshire who wanted to keep the Department of Education.”
He enjoyed a good martini and a fast game of squash, and was famous for parsing his words to wiggle out of tight spots. During President Bill Clinton’s impeachment on charges of perjury and obstruction, Specter, objecting to what he called a “sham trial” without witnesses, signaled he would vote to acquit.
But a simple “not guilty” vote would have put him directly at odds with Republicans; instead, citing Scottish law, Specter voted “not proven,” adding, “therefore not guilty.”
He relished his work on the Judiciary Committee. In 1987, he enraged conservatives by derailing Robert H. Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court and then delighted them four years later by backing Clarence Thomas. The Thomas confirmation nearly cost Specter his Senate seat; even now, millions of American women remain furious with him for his aggressive questioning of the law professor Anita Hill, who had accused Thomas of sexual harassment.
If he had any regrets, Specter rarely admitted them.
Brash confidence and outsize ego were characteristic of Specter, a man so feared by his own aides and so brusque with colleagues that he earned the nickname Snarlin’ Arlen on Capitol Hill.
Those close to Specter say there was a softer side to him, but no one denied that as a lawmaker he was all business, with little patience for the false pleasantries of politics.
Arlen Specter was born on Feb. 12, 1930, in Wichita, the fourth and youngest child of Harry and Lillian Specter. Harry Specter, a Jewish emigre from Ukraine, moved his family back and forth between the East Coast and the Midwest seeking work before settling in Kansas as a peddler.
By the time Arlen was 5, he, too, was peddling, selling cantaloupes door-to-door by his father’s side.
When scrap metal became salable during World War II, the Specters moved to Russell.
Carl Feldbaum, a friend and a former chief of staff to the senator, traced Specter’s gruffness to those days.
“There’s a hard-bitten quality that came out of being an immigrant,” Feldbaum said, “of being the only Jewish family in a small Midwestern town and living through the Depression/war era.”
The Specters later moved to Philadelphia — “so my sister could meet and marry a nice Jewish boy,” Specter explained — where he enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania.
He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1951, served in the Air Force, then got a law degree from Yale. He graduated in 1956; by 1959, he was an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, prosecuting union racketeers and attracting the attention of some leaders in Washington.
His parents were Democrats, and so was he, until he tried to run for district attorney in 1965.
As Specter recalled, the local Democratic chairman told him that the party did not want a “young Tom Dewey as D.A.” — a reference to the former New York governor and racket-buster Thomas E. Dewey, a Republican. So Specter ran on the Republican ticket as a Democrat. He switched his party registration after he won.
Thus began what Specter liked to call “the continuing effort I have made to pull the Republican Party to the center.” He won his first election to the Senate in 1980.