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Arlen Specter, Senator Who Gave No Quarter, Dies

Former Sen. Arlen Specter, one of the most influential senators of the last half-century, died Sunday from complications of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He was 82.

The five-term senator, a moderate Republican-turned-Democrat, was a key member of the Judiciary Committee and a major player in the confirmation proceedings of 14 Supreme Court nominees. But he was consistently a thorn for leaders of both political parties and their presidents.

Specter, reviled by the right, mistrusted by the left and ever unpredictable, was nonetheless a major force in the U.S. Senate for three decades, casting what were often crucial votes on everything from judicial nominations to economic policy.

Bork Vote, Thomas Hearings

President Obama greets Sen. Arlen Specter at a reception in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month. After 44 years as a Republican, Specter switched parties in 2009.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
Getty Images
President Obama greets Sen. Arlen Specter at a reception in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month. After 44 years as a Republican, Specter switched parties in 2009.

A lot of things made him the voodoo doll of GOP conservatives: his outspoken support for abortion rights, his advocacy of civil rights legislation and, of course, the cardinal sin, his vote against the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork in 1987. Nearly two decades later, as he was about to chair hearings on the nomination of John Roberts to be chief justice, I asked him if he regretted the Bork vote.

"Absolutely not," he said. "Judge Bork had a view of the Constitution that was different from anybody else that'd ever been nominated to the court. He was doubtless a brilliant man, but he could have turned the Constitution upside down."

Specter was hardly the darling of the left, either. Democrats were infuriated when Specter, faced with a likely Republican primary challenge in 1991, led the hostile questioning of Anita Hill at the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

"It is my legal judgment that the testimony from Professor Hill this morning was flat-out perjury," he said at the time.

Specter's treatment of Hill, a young law professor who had come forward to testify that Thomas sexually harassed her, nearly cost him his Senate seat anyway. In 1992, his Democratic opponent made the hearings the central issue of the campaign, and Specter eked out the narrowest of victories.

Moderate Republican

He remained a moderate Republican nonetheless, consistently giving the GOP leadership political heartburn.

"It's sort of an occupational hazard of mine to be stuck in the middle, and I will support my party when I can, but it's a matter of conscience that I may have to disagree," he said.

President George W. Bush and Specter arrive at Harrisburg International Airport in Pennsylvania on April 19, 2004.
Luke Frazza / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
President George W. Bush and Specter arrive at Harrisburg International Airport in Pennsylvania on April 19, 2004.

One of those disagreements came in 2009 when Specter was one of only three Republicans to vote for President Obama's stimulus — a vote that so infuriated his own party that polls showed Specter could not survive his next Republican primary. So, with support from Obama, he switched parties, only to be defeated in the Democratic primary.

A Child Of The Great Depression

Specter would later say that his own experiences as a child of the Great Depression were what led him to cast that stimulus vote, to prevent another depression.

Born in Kansas, Specter grew up in the only Jewish family in the farming community of Russell. During the period, his father went door-to-door selling cantaloupes.

In school, Specter made good grades, graduated from college with honors and got his law degree from Yale after serving in the Air Force during the Korean War. He also served as counsel to the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President Kennedy.

He was a young man on the move when in 1965 he was elected district attorney of Philadelphia, amassing a record as a crusading prosecutor over two terms. In 1981, after losing four races for other offices, he was elected to the U.S. Senate seat he would hold for the next 30 years.

There, Specter was admired for his mastery of public policy matters large and small; respected for his hard work, his intellectual acumen and his sheer doggedness.

But he was also notorious for his sharp elbows and porcupine-prickly personality. In a 2005 interview, we had this exchange.

Totenberg: "You know they call you Snarlin' Arlen?"

Specter: "It's a bad rap. It all came about because some people call me Darlin' Arlen, and they were trying to look for something that rhymed with Arlen and darlin' which was nasty. It's a bad rap."

If not the most charming senator, Specter was among the toughest. In his 70s, he battled brain cancer, then non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He looked frail, small and bald. But he refused to give up, maintaining a grueling Senate schedule while he underwent chemotherapy. Even as his exhaustion was palpable, he was up every morning at 6, playing squash, giving no quarter to the disease, just as he gave no quarter to critics or political opponents.

"My definition of winning at squash is playing and surviving," he said, "and I've never lost a match."

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Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.