Last of the GOP Moderates, Sen. Arlen Specter Dead at 82

The nation has lost one of the most influential U.S. Senators in recent American history, as former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter passed away yesterday morning at the age of 82 after a battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Specter, who lost his seat in 2010 after switching from the Republican to Democratic Party because he couldn’t stomach the Republican swing to the right, had previously survived a brain tumor and heart bypass surgery.

Specter was known as an irascible but indomitable force in the Senate, finding himself as the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the middle of some of the nation’s most contentious political battles, such as the confirmations hearings of Supreme Court nominees Robert H. Bork and Clarence Thomas and the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

Specter was considered one of the last moderate centrist Republicans to survive in the Senate, but even with all of his history and accomplishments through three decades in the esteemed body, he saw that he wouldn’t be able to hold onto his Senate seat as a member of the Republican Party in 2009—so he switched parties. But Specter, who started his career as a Democrat but was a Republican for 44 years, lost in the Democratic primary.

Specter was even a vital force as a young lawyer for the Warren Commission and is credited for originating the theory that a lone gunman shot both President John F. Kennedy and Texas Gov. John B. Connally with the same bullet.


In a statement issued yesterday, President Obama said, “Arlen Specter was always a fighter.”

“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,” the president’s statement continued. “He brought that same toughness and determination to his personal struggles, using his own story to inspire others.”

The president said Specter brought the same determination to beating a brain tumor and heart bypass surgery that he brought to political battles.

“Arlen fought that battle for seven more years with the same resolve he used to fight for stem-cell research funding, veterans health, and countless other issues that will continue to change lives for years to come.  Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to Joan and the rest of the Specter family,” the president said.

While his party became more stridently conservative, Specter angered other Republicans by remaining a staunch supporter of Roe v. Wade and an advocate of biomedical and embryonic stem cell research—long before he was diagnosed with cancer.

Specter even ran for president in 1995, but his campaign didn’t survive very long—not helped by Specter’s denunciation of the Christian right as an extremist “fringe.”

Specter, a former prosecutor, could be mean and brash—so much so that he was sometimes called “Snarlin’ Arlen” on Capitol Hill. When well-known conservative Paul Weyrich defended him after Specter was attacked for his harsh questioning of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, Weyrich told National Review magazine, “Arlen Specter is a jerk, but he’s our jerk.”


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