Arlen Specter was an American original– a tough, scrappy and independent political leader. He was willing to anger people on all sides and was fiercely competitive, whether in the cloakroom or on the squash court. He was, at times, criticized for being opportunistic. His character and personality were shaped by a hardscrabble upbringing in Kansas, where his family was one of the few Jewish families. As a teenager in Russell, Kansas, he got to know another future senator and American original: Bob Dole.
Why? He wanted to talk about the importance of funding the National Institutes of Health. Knowing he did not have much longer to live, Specter wanted his legacy to be his record of expanding resources for the NIH, the government agency he felt had extended his life and saved countless others. As a key Senate appropriator for decades, he was a fierce advocate for stem cell research, breast cancer funding and funding for Alzheimer’s research. But despite his hopes, he wasn’t strong enough to do the interview. His family wanted him to conserve his energy.
The veteran senator first entered politics as a Democrat, working as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, where he’d been an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, before going to Yale Law School. After helping develop the “single-bullet theory” while assistant counsel to the Warren Commission - which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in the assassination of John F. Kennedy - Specter returned to Philadelphia and switched parties.
A newly-minted Republican, Specter ran against his former boss, Democratic District Attorney James Crumlish in 1965 - Crumlish tagged him “Benedict Arlen.” But Specter won despite an overwhelming Democratic registration edge. He went on to fashion himself a crusading prosecutor against the city’s Democratic machine, convening multiple grand juries to go after Democratic office-holders.
I first covered his race for mayor in 1967: he barely lost, by about 10,000 votes. He was re-elected as DA in 1969 by an overwhelming majority, but lost re-election in 1973. When he finally was elected to the Senate - after losing statewide races for Senate and governor - Specter managed to anger both liberals and conservatives.
First, his leadership on the Judiciary Committee against confirmation of Reagan Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork earned him the lifetime enmity of conservatives. Then, during the Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991, he angered liberals with his sharp cross-examination of Anita Hill. Criticism from women’s groups jeopardized his re-election in the 1992 campaign, but a key political commercial taped by Teresa Heinz, the just-widowed wife of Pennsylvania Sen. John Heinz, helped him regain enough women’s support to win that campaign. (Mrs. Heinz subsequently met and married John Kerry).
Back in the Senate - Specter was the leader of the coalition that defeated President Bill Clinton’s health care legislation - with the use of complicated charts and graphs during a celebrated floor speech ridiculing the plan’s complexity. But in 2009, he became the critical vote that helped President Obama win his stimulus package. That vote led to his party switch, one that did not help him survive a fiercely fought Democratic primary the following year.
After his defeat Specter taught at Penn’s Law School - until he succumbed to his final illness.