Arlen Specter: A One of a Kind Senator

Arlen Specter, who died at age 82, was an energetic, aisle-crossing, effective Republican. Eleanor Clift remembers.

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When word got out in late August that he had been hospitalized and was being treated for a recurrence of cancer, his fifth bout with the disease, former Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter said in a statement issued by his office: “I am battling cancer, and it’s another battle I intend to win. I am grateful for the well wishes I have received and I am looking forward to getting back to work, to the comedy stage, the squash court and the ballpark.” A man with many interests and seemingly boundless energy, it was only when Specter canceled his stand-up gig at a local comedy club in Philadelphia that friends and admirers realized something had to be terribly wrong for him to skip out on an evening of comedy.

Specter never did anything halfway—except maybe his politics, because he was the rare senator who rebelled against the party line enough that his vote was often up for grabs. Elected to five six-year terms as a Republican, Specter, 82, holds the record as the longest-serving senator from Pennsylvania. His electoral career ended in 2010 after he had switched parties to become a Democrat, saying the GOP had moved too far to the right. Some saw the move as opportunistic—he was facing a stiff challenge from the right in the Republican primary.

He then narrowly lost in the Democratic primary, bringing to an odd conclusion a legislative career marked by a broad array of achievements, a knack for getting media attention, and an energy level that never flagged despite significant health challenges. Twice treated for a brain tumor in the 1990s, and for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system whose complications ultimately led to his death, in 2002 and 2008, he maintained a grueling work schedule throughout, even managing to play his beloved game of squash most days.

“It was very, very tough,” he said in an interview that appeared in the summer of ’08 in NIH Medline Plus. “Chemotherapy is a very debilitating formula, but I just made up my mind. I had to drag myself out of bed and go to work.” His book, Never Give In: Battling Cancer in the Senate, published in 2008, conveys his extraordinary determination and the importance of mental fortitude. He urged people facing serious illness to learn as much as they can about their medical condition, and to maintain regular work and exercise as much as possible.

Specter was a leader on health research in the senate, crossing the aisle to work with Democratic Senator Tom Harkin to increase funding for the National Institutes of Health. “Looking back, even the people who opposed him most harshly remember him as one of the most hard-working legislators,” says Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, who worked with Specter on legislation to make it easier for live organ donors to be compensated for expenses. The legislation did not come to fruition, but Specter’s willingness to take on eclectic causes was evident throughout his long career. “He was one of a kind,” says Pitney.

Specter was a registered Democrat in 1965 when he ran as a Republican for district attorney in Philadelphia. He changed his registration after he won and remained a Republican until 2009, when he changed parties, giving President Obama a 60-vote filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate. After helping Obama pass his landmark health-care reform legislation, Specter was suddenly friendless on the campaign trail. In a book, Life among the Cannibals, published after his defeat, he describes the battles that prompted his defection from the GOP and accuses the White House of deserting him. “That’s the trouble with party switchers,” says Pitney. “Their old party thinks they’re a traitor, and their new party doesn’t trust them. It’s a tricky position to be in.”

Specter was one of only three Republicans to vote for Obama’s stimulus package, along with the two women senators from Maine, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. He railed against the ideological purity that had gripped his party and thinned the ranks of northeastern Republicans. He seemed to relish taking stands that set him apart. During the height of the fervor over impeaching President Clinton, Specter went before the cameras to explain how he would be following “Scottish law” and voting “not proven” on the two articles of impeachment. “I have gone back to Scottish law where there are three verdicts: guilty, not guilty, and not proved,” he said.

A graduate of Yale Law School, Specter gained attention as an assistant counsel to the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President Kennedy. He is credited with developing the single bullet theory that helped create and fuel an industry of conspiracy theorists.

A pro-choice Republican, his opposition to the nomination of conservative Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987 helped torpedo Bork’s chances, winning Specter applause from liberals. But in 1991, his graphic questioning of Anita Hill about charges of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas made Specter anathema among feminists. He would marvel years later on the impact of those hearings. In a 2011 interview with ABC, he said, “Last year, the night before the primary in Pennsylvania, I was heading into a rally in Pittsburgh and a woman walked up to me, and in front of all the cameras there, she said, ‘I’ll never forgive you for what you did to Anita Hill.”

Since leaving the Senate, Specter served as an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, teaching a course on the relationship between Congress and the Supreme Court.