Arlen Specter leaves remarkable — and controversial — public record

Arlen Specter leaves remarkable — and controversial — public record

Arlen Specter served 30 years in the U.S. Senate
Arlen Specter served 30 years in the U.S. Senate

Arlen Specter, a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania for 30 years until his defeat in 2010, and perhaps the leading Middle East authority on Capitol Hill during his time in the Senate, died Sunday after another bout with cancer. He was 82.
Specter had announced in August a recurrence of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, cancer of the lymphatic system.
A political maverick who frequently broke with his own party on hot-button issues, the longest-serving senator in Pennsylvania history jumped from the Republican Party to the Democrats in his 2010 run for reelection. At the time, he told, the Chronicle in an interview that he was being branded a “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) by members of his own party. He nevertheless lost the Democratic nomination to then-U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak.
But during his time in office, few legislators spoke with the same authority and knowledge of Israel and the Middle East as Specter, who made many trips to the region and conferred with Israeli and Arab leaders alike.
In fact, he considered being a mediator for Middle East peace shortly after his 2010 election defeat.
Jewish Pittsburghers always packed Specter’s town hall meetings on his frequent visits to the region, peppering him with questions about Israeli-Palestinian affairs and U.S. politics.
While clearly a pro-Israel voice, the Jewish senator from Philadelphia wasn’t afraid to speak frankly about the Jewish state and its positions.
“I support Israel because we have a commonality of interests,” he told an audience during a 2009 program at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh office in Oakland. But he added, “It is not blind support.”
Born Feb. 12, 1930, in Wichita, Kan., the youngest child of Lillie and Harry Specter, Specter grew up in Russell, Kan., which was also the hometown of Sen. Bob Dole, and where his was the only Jewish family in town, according to his memoir.
He majored in international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1951.
After serving as a second lieutenant in the Air Force from 1951 to 1953, he married Joan Levy in 1953, a woman who would later serve on the Philadelphia City Council. They had two sons together.
After graduating from Yale Law School in 1956, Specter went into private practice, but he soon gravitated to criminal law and in 1959 became an assistant district attorney under District Attorney James C. Crumlish, Jr., and was a member of the Democratic Party.
He rose to national prominence in 1964 as assistant counsel to the Warren Commission, which was investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. As assistant counsel, he helped develop the “single bullet theory,” which suggested the death of Kennedy and wounding of Texas Governor John Connally were caused by the same bullet.
Specter ran for Philadelphia district attorney in 1965 on the Republican ticket though a registered Democrat in 1965 and won. He subsequently switched to the Republican Party changed his registration to Republican. He served two terms as D.A. before being defeated for a third.
That began a string of political defeats. Specter made his first run for the Senate in 1976, but lost the GOP nomination to John Heinz of Pittsburgh. He also lost the 1978 Republican nomination for governor to yet another Pittsburgher, Dick Thornburgh.
Specter finally won election to the Senate in 1980, beginning what would be a long, high-profile, often volatile and controversial career in Washington.
As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Specter came under heavy criticism from conservatives in 1987 for his opposition to President’s Reagan’s nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Yet in 1991, during the committee hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas he again came under attack, this time from liberals, for his tough questioning of Anita Hill, who had accused Thomas of sexual harassment. Specter accused Hill of committing “flat-out perjury,” which earned him scorn from women’s organizations and threatened to cost him reelection.
He made a brief run for president in 1995 but dropped out before the primaries and ultimately supported Dole, his fellow Russell, Kan., native, who won the GOP nomination that year.
Specter frequently came down on different sides of the political spectrum on major issues.
He criticized the impeachment of President Bill Clinton saying he did not get a fair trial and voting not proven”, and he assailed the Bush administration for wiretapping U.S citizens without warrants. He opposed most forms of gun control, including he Brady Bill. He co-sponsored an amendment to the Fair Housing Act, which expanded the protected classes to include disabled persons and families with children. He supported repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and reauthorization of the Patriot Act and he supported affirmative action.
Specter is survived by his wife, Joan, sons Shanin and Stephen, and four grandchildren, Silvi, Perri, Lilli and Hatti.