News Column

Former Sen. Arlen Specter, 82, Championed Moderation

October 15, 2012

By Richard Wolf and Gregory Korte

Former senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, an irascible moderate who served three decades in a Senate increasingly dominated by conservatives and liberals, died Sunday.

Specter, 82, died at his home in Philadelphia of complications from non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

"He was a person who could reach across the aisle, honor the Constitution, and try to work toward bipartisan solutions," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond and expert on judicial confirmations. "Not everyone would agree with that. There were so many huge battles he was involved in. Maybe eventually that's what did him in."

Through 30 tumultuous years, Specter refused to toe either party line. A Republican for nearly all his life, he nonetheless opposed Robert Bork's Supreme Court confirmation in 1987 and President Clinton's impeachment in 1999.

He infuriated Democrats in 1991 with his prosecutorial questioning of Anita Hill, a law professor who accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Specter's interrogation helped put Thomas on the high court.

Specter provided key votes for President Obama's $831 billion stimulus package and his health care overhaul. In a statement Sunday, Obama called Specter "fiercely independent -- never putting party or ideology ahead of the people he was chosen to serve."

Specter became a Democrat in 2009 to avoid a challenge from conservative Republican Pat Toomey, who Sunday called him "a man of sharp intelligence and dogged determination." Instead, Specter lost the Democratic primary to Rep. Joe Sestak, who in turn lost to Toomey.

"I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy," Specter said upon switching sides.

Diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease in 2005 and treated again in 2008, Specter had undergone two brain surgeries, two rounds of chemotherapy and a heart bypass before re-entering the hospital in August for "a serious form of cancer."

'The man in the middle'

Specter's Senate career was best known for his time on the Judiciary Committee, which he chaired briefly from 2005 to 2007 before Democrats regained control. He called himself "the man in the middle."

Specter was a defender of abortion rights who never wanted the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision overturned.

He tried to run for president as a Republican in 1996 but failed to make it as far as the primaries.

Born in Wichita on Feb. 12, 1930 -- Abraham Lincoln's birthday -- he was the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant who sewed clothes and ran a junkyard. He attended the University of Pennsylvania and Yale Law School with an Air Force stint in between.

In 1964, Specter joined the investigation of President Kennedy's assassination. He developed the single-bullet theory that led the Warren Commission to conclude Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

He began his career as a Democratic assistant district attorney in Philadelphia but switched parties and won election as district attorney in 1965. He lost bids for Philadelphia mayor, the Senate and governor before winning a Senate seat.

Specter leaves behind his wife of 59 years, Joan; two sons and four granddaughters. A public funeral is set for Tuesday in Penn Valley, Pa.

In his last speech before the Senate, Specter called it "a vastly different place" than when he was first elected and lamented the dwindling ranks of centrists.

"Moderates and some conservatives have fallen like flies at the hands of the extremists in both parties," he said. "When one party insists on ideological purity, compromise is thwarted, and the two-party system fails to function."

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2012