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Arlen Specter dies at 82; longtime senator was a political maverick

Specter represented Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate for 30 years but perhaps was best known for his work in the Supreme Court nomination process.

October 15, 2012|By Timothy M. Phelps, Los Angeles Times
  • John Duricka / Associated Press
John Duricka / Associated Press (mbw836p720121014102248/600 )

WASHINGTON — Arlen Specter, who in 30 years representing Pennsylvania in the Senate offended Republicans and Democrats in almost equal measure with maverick votes and a frank cockiness that finally ended his career in politics, died Sunday at his home in Philadelphia. He was 82.

The cause was complications of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, his family said.

An earlier version of this article said that Arlen Specter's change of party gave President Obama a veto-proof majority in the Senate. It gave Obama a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

Specter, who had battled a number of major illnesses in recent years, was a hard-driving former prosecutor described even by some admirers as sarcastic, rough-hewn, demanding and abrasive. But he stood well above many of his Senate colleagues in his combination of intelligence and effectiveness.

His career in public life began as an influential young investigator of President John F. Kennedy's assassination and essentially ended with a crucial vote for President Obama's economic stimulus plan. His biggest mark, however, was made on nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court as a member and briefly as chairman of the Senate's Judiciary Committee.

He provided the coup de grace that finally killed the nomination of his own party's conservative darling, Robert Bork, in 1987 and, in penance, wielded the sword that won narrow confirmation for conservative hero Clarence Thomas in 1991 by slashing at the credibility of law professor Anita Hill, who accused Thomas of sexual harassment.

Specter won no lasting gratitude from either liberals or conservatives in the process, and he especially alienated women with his attacks on Hill. His lurching from side to side, from vote to vote, from primary to general elections, and the increasing conservatism of his adopted Republican Party, finally caught up with him in 2010.

After yet another "betrayal" of Republicans on the 2009 stimulus plan, he was forced to make the most dramatic leap in a career that was full of them. But this time he did not make it across the chasm.

Facing defeat in the 2010 Republican primary election, Specter surprised the nation by announcing in April 2009 that he was switching parties — for a second time. (In 1965 he switched from Democrat to Republican after winning election as Philadelphia district attorney on the Republican ticket in an end-run around the city's Democratic machine.)

His change of party affiliation delivered a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate to President Obama. But not for long. Pennsylvania Democrats, many of whom had voted against him for years, refused to accept his conversion, particularly after he said in his characteristically frank way that "my change in party will enable me to get reelected." He avoided the Republican primary but got smacked in the Democratic primary, defeated by a lesser-known congressman.

"From his days stamping out corruption as a prosecutor in Philadelphia to his three decades of service in the Senate, Arlen was fiercely independent — never putting party or ideology ahead of the people he was chosen to serve," President Obama said Sunday, adding that the "toughness and determination" Specter brought to his personal and political struggles inspired others.

Specter, who passionately played the game of squash most of his life, was born Feb. 12, 1930, in Wichita, Kan., the son of a peddler and junkyard owner, and was raised in the only Jewish family in Russell, Kan.

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Pennsylvania in 1951 with a bachelor's degree in international relations, he served in the Air Force. In 1953, he married the former Joan Levy. She survives him, along with their sons Shanin and Stephen and four grandchildren.

He graduated from Yale Law School in 1956 and later went to work for the Warren Commission, where he is credited with developing the "single-bullet theory" that helped the commission conclude that a lone assassin had killed President Kennedy in 1963.

In two terms as district attorney in Philadelphia in the 1960s, Specter made a name for himself by bringing corruption cases but also scored political points by prosecuting Penn students during the student turmoil of the day. In Pennsylvania he lost races for Philadelphia mayor, the Senate, governor and reelection as district attorney before finally winning his Senate seat in 1980. He would hold it longer than any other Pennsylvanian. He mounted a quixotic run for the presidency in 1996.

Specter wielded an influential swing vote in the Senate. But he particularly distinguished himself, for better or worse, during his 14 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, when he habitually asked probing questions of nominees from both parties instead of succumbing to the rhetorical approach favored by his colleagues.

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