During his 30 years in the clubby confines of the U.S. Senate, Arlen Specter never lost his acerbic prosecutorial zeal, friends and associates say.
The insistent questions, the commitment to independence that made the longtime Pennsylvania senator a critical player in recent U.S. history, ultimately did in his career. In his 2010 bid for a sixth term, Specter lost the support of both Democrats and Republicans.
Specter, who had been the longest-serving U.S. senator from his state, died Sunday of complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 82.
His iconoclasm was his brand, from the outset of his career, when he made a name for himself as the young Philadelphia assistant district attorney on the Warren Commission who first postulated that a single bullet hit both President John F. Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally.
And he wore his independence as a badge of honor: The pro-choice Republican who helped fell Robert Bork’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, and then ensured Clarence Thomas’ ascension by leading what many liberal groups saw as the smearing of Anita Hill, a one-time aide to Thomas who had accused the former head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of sexually harassing her. The pro-Israel stalwart who enjoyed his one-on-ones with some of the Middle East’s most bloodstained tyrants.
Running for district attorney in Philadelphia in 1965, he left the Democratic Party, but returned in 2009, frustrated with what he said was the Republican Party’s lurch rightward. Specter the Democrat helped pass President Obama’s health care reforms.
“He would tell me, ‘Every morning I wake up I look in the mirror and I see the toughest guy in politics,’ ” recalled Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America who first lobbied and then befriended Specter.
Specter, who represented Pennsylvania in the Senate from 1981 to 2011, was shaped by his childhood as the only Jewish kid in his class in a small Midwestern town, Russell, Kan., said David Brog, a longtime aide to Specter who eventually rose to be his chief of staff.
“He was a tough Jew,” Brog said. Specter’s upbringing – helping out his father, a peddler and scrap metal business owner, when he was barely beyond toddler age – was a factor in his pro-Israel leadership, Brog said.
“He saw a little of Israel in himself as the only Jew in his class in Russell,” he said.
Although his sisters were Orthodox Jewish, Specter himself was not outwardly religious, though he had a strong sense of Jewish identity.