WASHINGTON (AP) — As Arlen Specter leaves the Senate after 30 years of roll calls, debates, dealmaking and votes, the one-time corruption-busting Philadelphia prosecutor and “single-bullet theory” architect of the John F. Kennedy assassination says he wouldn’t change a thing about his political path.
Specter began and ended — for now — his political party life as a Democrat, spent the intervening four decades as a Republican, but sees himself as an independent who often bucked party leadership — a choice he sees as ultimately bringing his career in elected office to an end.
“I have always agreed with (John F.) Kennedy that sometimes party asks too much,” Specter said in his last news media interview in his Washington, D.C. office on Dec. 23. “My tenure in the Senate was really as an independent and whichever, regardless of party label.”
In February 2009, he provided a key vote for President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package, the only congressional Republican facing re-election in 2010 to do so. That vote so enraged Pennsylvania Republicans — and solidified GOP support for conservative former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey — that he returned to the Democratic Party, only to be beaten in its May primary.
It was Specter’s first race as a Democrat, and Democrats who had voted against him for years denied him a sixth term by nominating Joe Sestak instead. Toomey narrowly defeated Sestak in the November election and will succeed Specter when he’s sworn into office on Jan. 5.
His independent streak aside, Specter is a survivor, with the physical resilience to stand up to a brain tumor and two run-ins with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system.
He is Pennsylvania’s longest-serving U.S. senator, savvy enough to court conservatives before primary elections and the rest of the state’s moderate and Democratic voters during general elections while advancing his own influence and interests. He weathered firestorms from conservatives and liberals, and criticism that he staked out positions on both sides of the same, controversial issue.
He has traveled the world and straddled generations, meeting Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Menachim Begin, Pope John Paul II, Mikhail Gorbechev and Fidel Castro.
Specter is unlikely to go down in history as one of the great U.S. senators. But he was widely regarded as a smart, tireless and effective legislator who used his seniority to work the levers of power to serve constituents and bring home tax dollars.
Intellectually, he was head and shoulders above most of his fellow senators and showed a serious national engagement, beyond just taking care of constituents, said Stephen Hess, a former presidential adviser and a senior fellow emeritus in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
“We used to tend to measure our senators on whether they were a show horse or a workhorse,” Hess said. “It’s fair to say that he was both.”
Specter used his willingness to cross party lines to bolster his own clout.
In 2001, he won more money for education and debt reduction by voting with Democrats to slice $450 billion from President George W. Bush’s package of tax cuts. He negotiated $10 billion for medical research when he agreed to vote for the stimulus.
He considers the stimulus vote the most important of some 10,000 he cast in the Senate, and his persistence in winning more money for the National Institutes of Health his most important accomplishment.
“When I’m asked about legacy, I say it’s too early to talk about legacy,” the 80-year-old Specter said.
Specter’s friends say party affiliation was usually the last thing on his mind. After he lost his bid for a third term as Philadelphia’s district attorney, Specter asked one of his assistant prosecutors what the young man would do next.
The young man — Ed Rendell — said he thought he’d like to run for district attorney one day.
“‘Good, I’ll call Billy Meehan,”‘ Specter said, referring to the city’s then-Republican Party leader.
“‘Gee, Arlen, thanks, but I’m a Democrat,”‘ responded Rendell
– who went to become Philadelphia’s district attorney and mayor, and is wrapping up his second term as Pennsylvania’s governor. “That was the first time he knew I was a Democrat.”
Specter was raised in Depression-era Kansas. In the small town of Russell, he worked many afternoons in his father’s junkyard at the sweaty, backbreaking task of unloading scrap metal from trucks and railroad cars. For his father, Harry, a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine, the thriving business during World War II was a step up from peddling blankets and cantaloupes door-to-door, and allowed him to send his four children to college.
Specter was graduated by the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where his father had relatives. After earning a law degree at Yale, he began his public service in 1959 as an assistant district attorney in the city. In his 2000 book, “Passion for Truth,” he noted how his father had complained bitterly that the U.S. government had broken its promise to pay a bonus to World War I veterans.
“Figuratively, ” he wrote, “I have been on my way to Washington ever since to get my father’s bonus.”
He made his name sending six Teamsters’ officials to prison for conspiracy to misuse union dues, a victory noticed by U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. It helped pave the way for Specter’s service as a staff lawyer on the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
On the panel, he became known as the architect of the “single-bullet theory,” which buttressed the finding that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin. Although it has withstood the test of time, the theory was considered by some — and depicted by director Oliver Stone’s 1991 film “JFK” — as a magic-bullet concoction designed to cover up a perceived right-wing conspiracy.
Specter wanted next to run for DA, but city Democratic Party leaders didn’t have him in their plans. So he became a party-switcher for the first time, running successfully on the Republican ticket against his former boss in 1965.
He lost the 1967 race for mayor, and was defeated in the 1973 DA’s race.
He lost the GOP Senate primary in 1976 and the GOP gubernatorial primary in 1978 before winning Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat in 1980 as part of a tide of Republicans who took control of the Senate along with Ronald Reagan’s presidential election.
Initially, he was part of a robust group of centrist Republicans. As time wore on, and the Republican Party shifted to the right, he became increasingly isolated.
Unapologetic about his political centrism and his Jewish heritage, his positions — such as support for abortion rights or his opposition to a constitutional amendment to reinstate school prayer — often put him at odds with much of the Republican Party.
His terse comebacks, sharp wit and relentless pursuit earned him the nickname, “Snarlin’ Arlen.”
“Often, Arlen gets what he’s after just because people throw up their hands and say, ‘Enough,”‘ Rendell said.
He mounted a short-lived candidacy for president in 1995, warning that President Bill Clinton would be re-elected if Republicans followed “the intolerant right.” When he ended his campaign, he acknowledged he’d had trouble raising cash and that a Jewish candidate was probably ill-suited to deliver the message of political moderation to the GOP base.
He authored a law on mandatory minimum sentences for armed career criminals in the 1980s, a law on hate crime penalties with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in the 1990s and took a special interest in advancing federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
He is perhaps best-known for his role in Supreme Court confirmations — he took part in 14 hearings, he said — because of his long service on the Judiciary Committee and his dogged questioning.
Often, he sought a nominee’s assurances that they would give proper weight to legal precedent — the body of law developed through more than a century of Supreme Court decisions.
He helped sink Reagan’s 1987 nomination of Robert H. Bork, calling him a “throwback” who would help outlaw abortion.
In 1991 he earned the enduring anger of many Democrats — and a tough re-election challenge a year later — when he aggressively questioned the honesty of Anita Hill, a law professor who had accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.
“I have wondered about the quality of those explanations, candidly,” he told Hill at the time. “But there is no description for this entire proceeding other than a tragedy.” Thomas was confirmed and still sits on the court.
In late 2004, Specter almost lost his shot at the Judiciary Committee chairmanship when he angered conservatives by saying anti-abortion judges would have trouble winning Senate confirmation. He kept the job by pledging to give Bush’s nominees quick hearings and early votes, regardless of their views.
He did — but it came back to haunt him. In the 2010 Democratic primary, he found himself denying a charge by his former fellow Republican Sen. Rick Santorum that Specter had promised to vote for Bush’s Supreme Court nominees if Santorum endorsed him in his 2004 primary against Toomey.
His political centrism forced presidents, colleagues and lobbyists to pursue his vote with extra vigor. At times, it infuriated liberals: The Senate’s Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid, wrote in his 2009 book that Specter “is always there when we don’t need him.”
On the other hand, Reid spoke glowingly about Specter from the Senate floor in April on the one-year anniversary of Specter’s party switch.
“I have never seen another senator with a greater willingness to work in a bipartisan manner, to put people over party and encourage others to search their hearts and do what is right,” Reid said.
That centrism also made him an enduring target of conservative Republicans. In 2004, Republicans who viewed him as insufficiently supportive of Bush nearly sent him packing in favor of Toomey.
But it was the stimulus vote that proved the final, irreconcilable difference. Republicans looked to former Gov. Tom Ridge, who declined a run, while Toomey scrapped his plans to run for governor to challenge Specter one more time.
On April 28, 2009, he announced he was changing his party registration, after spending decades as the kind of Republican who would rather fight than switch.
Barely a year later, Sestak, a congressman and retired Navy rear admiral, handily beat Specter in the Democratic primary. Specter outspent Sestak, but Sestak nimbly attacked him as a political opportunist and backroom dealmaker who switched parties to save his job and who couldn’t be trusted to support party beliefs. A memorable campaign ad used Specter’s own words — “My change in party will enable me to be re-elected” — to his detriment.
Specter countered that his stimulus vote was a matter of principle — he’d put his job on the line to help the nation avoid a second Great Depression, he said — and that he had voted with Democrats more often on the big issues, such as civil rights, union rights and abortion rights.
Since then, he has spoken little about the loss and did not publicly campaign for Sestak in his contest with Toomey, a nail-biter won by Toomey.
Still, Specter eased into his role as a Democrat, casting votes in favor of Obama’s major platforms.
After the last vote of 2010, on Dec. 22, Specter took the train north with Vice President Joe Biden, as he has done often for years with his longtime former Senate colleague. They did not, he said, talk about the end of Specter’s Senate career.
“We talked about the Mideast a lot. We talked about Korea. We talked about the (political) gridlock,” Specter said. “But we didn’t relive the past — or the future.”
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