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

Senate Judiciary Committee member Arlen Specter questions witnesses defending Anita Hill, who accused Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her in the 1980s.
(John Duricka / Associated Press)

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.

Specter’s extended questioning of Bork, a brilliant but, for his time, one of the most radically conservative nominees to come before the committee, is remembered as an exhilarating constitutional exchange on fundamental issues such as free speech, equal protection of the laws, and the “original intent” of the authors of the Constitution.


“It was his questioning,” journalist Ethan Bronner wrote in “Battle for Justice: How the Bork Nomination Shook America,” “more than anyone else’s, that lent the hearings the feel of high-minded constitutional debate.”

Bork’s nomination was in some trouble before Specter announced he would oppose the Ronald Reagan nominee, but as a Republican and the committee’s most respected legal intellect, the decision was devastating. Specter, always a champion of civil rights, said he could not trust Bork to adhere to the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.

When Clarence Thomas was nominated by George H. W. Bush four years later, Specter was fearful of a bitter primary campaign centering on the backlash to his Bork vote. Although Thomas was in many ways as conservative as Bork, including on equal protection issues, Specter made it clear he was supporting this nominee.

That was fine, until Newsday and National Public Radio revealed after the hearings on Thomas had closed that the nominee had been accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill. Another round of hearings, unlike anything in the history of Supreme Court nominations, was scheduled. The White House, cognizant of Specter’s skill in cross-examination and especially the tight spot he was in politically, asked Specter to lead the questioning of Hill. Specter, the loose cannon for Republicans, had been coopted.


Specter, after assuring Hill that he did not consider the proceedings to be adversarial, proceeded to attack her with his toughest prosecutorial demeanor, challenging her with a staccato burst of alleged inconsistencies and blindsiding the staid University of Oklahoma law professor with bizarre allegations of psychological issues in her relationships with men. Even some of his more conservative Republican colleagues had urged him to stay away from that material. When he questioned Thomas later in the day, Specter shook the room by announcing that “it is my legal judgment” that Hill was guilty of “flat-out perjury.”

Many of Specter’s liberal and/or female supporters were repulsed by what they saw that day, and he was very nearly defeated in the next year’s general election by a woman who campaigned largely on his treatment of Hill.

Even so, some of Hill’s closest supporters in those hearings forgave Specter.

“I have the utmost respect for Arlen Specter,” said Charles Ogletree, the liberal Harvard law professor who helped lead Hill’s legal team at the hearings. After a period of mutual enmity after the Hill hearings, “We’ve become the best of friends.” Ogletree said that Specter had “very progressive views on judicial appointments.”


What’s more, though Hill herself is still concerned by Specter’s “stinging cross examination,” Ogletree said Hill and Specter have “exchanged words” and “put the past behind them.” Hill did not return a message asking her to comment.

But certainly not everyone in the Hill camp was conciliatory.

“I can never forgive him for what he did to Anita Hill,” said Nan Aron, the head of the liberal legal group Alliance for Justiceand one of the first in the Thomas opposition to hear of Hill. “That’s unforgivable.” Although Specter tried to “make amends with people, including me,” Aron said, her view is that Specter was “the consummate pol who wanted more than anything else to serve in that institution.”

Although Thomas and Bork overshadowed his Senate career, Specter, at least compared with other Republicans, was a champion of civil rights, women’s rights, some gay rights, and education. He said in 2004 that he would oppose judicial nominees who would end the right to an abortion. That comment almost cost him his cherished chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2005, but he agreed to toe the line on Republican nominees, which he did for two years until Republicans lost the Senate. “Nine lives? I think I have 19,” Specter said of that latest escape.


He also chaired the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.

His vote in 1999 on the impeachment of President Bill Clinton was pure Specter. Every other senator voted guilty or not guilty. Specter, invoking Scottish law, voted “Not proven, therefore not guilty.”

After his switch to the Democrats in 2009, Specter became a relatively reliable vote for his new party. But it was not enough. He won just 46% of the vote in the primary against Rep. Joe Sestak, a former Navy admiral who bucked Obama and the party establishment to run against Specter. Sestak lost in the general election to Republican Patrick J. Toomey.

If he had 19 or more political lives, Specter had at least five lives when it came to his health. He had open-heart surgery, surgery for a brain tumor and chemotherapy for two attacks of Hodgkin’s lymphoma before his final bout with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. .


“His career on the Judiciary Committee is ultimately his major legacy,” said G. Terry Madonna, a professor of political science at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. “No senator had more influence over the current composition of the Supreme Court.”

But what kind of man was Specter?

“Arlen was Arlen,” said Madonna, who knew Specter well. “He was a unique personality, a very demanding boss. He was sardonic. He had a sarcastic wit about him. The one thing you can say about him, he did not suffer fools at all.”

Colby Itkowitz of the Allentown Morning Call contributed to this story.