Former Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, 82-years-old, died Sunday morning from complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The Senator had previously fought Hodgekin’s disease, and survived a brain tumor and bypass heart surgery.
Described by President Obama as “a fighter,” the candid senator started his career as a assistant district attorney, weeding out corruption in Philadelphia. Though his parents were both Democrats, Specter was swayed by the local Democratic chairman that the party did not want “a young Tom Dewey as D.A.” So, Specter ran on the Republican ticket as a Democrat. After winning his race, he became a registered Republican and started his political efforts to move the Republican party towards the center.
After Specter won his seat for Senate in 1980, he became the longest serving senator in Pennsylvania history and one of the most well-known moderate politicians in Senate history. Specter was already making headlines before he arrived in Washington. As a lawyer for the Warren Commission, he introduced the “magic bullet” theory, or the theory that a single bullet caused all the wounds to the Texas Governor and the non-fatal neck wound to the President, during the investigation of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. During his time in the Senate, Specter had a crucial role in the highly contentious Supreme Court confirmations of Robert H. Bork and Clarence Thomas, and was one of five Republican senators to vote against the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, invoking Scottish law to say “not proven…therefore not guilty” instead of voting guilty or not guilty.
Despite all of his senatorial accomplishments, Specter may be most remembered for his party switch in 2009 after 44 years as a Republican. He changed parties because he feared the Republicans were moving too far to the right and that his political leanings were more aligned with the Democratic party than the Republican party. His decision cost him his primary and his Senate seat to Joe Sestak and Republican Senator Pat Toomey, respectively. Listing stand-up comedy as one of his many talents, the Senator also performed stand up comedy at the Helium Comedy Club in Philadelphia, poking fun of people in public life.
“So I’ve been in comedy now for 30 years. The only difference is that it’s not stand up, we all have comfortable chairs.”
Senator Specter was the definition of a true moderate by brazenly supporting Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion, advocating stem cell research before he discovered he had cancer in 2005. He also crossed party lines to champion his own convictions by providing key votes to President Obama’s landmark bills, the health care and economic stimulus acts. Voting for the President’s economic stimulus bill as one of three Republicans and siding with the Democrats, cost him his subsequent campaign in 2009. But that didn’t hinder him from reaching across the political aisle. Senator Specter said at the time,
“I believe that my duty is to follow my conscience and vote what I think is in the best interest of the country, and the political risks will have to abide.”
President Obama tweeted yesterday:
Arlen Specter changed lives through years of service in the Senate with toughness, resolve, and fierce independence. He will be missed. -bo
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) October 14, 2012
The President has ordered the U.S. flags at the White House and other public buildings flown at half-staff tomorrow, the day of the Senator’s funeral.