Arlen Specter: Influential Senator for the Democrats and Republicans


Maverick" is an overworked word in the political lexicon, but it applies perfectly to Arlen Specter, a giant of the US Senate, a moderate in views if not in manner, who over his three decades on Capitol Hill career would constantly infuriate liberals and conservatives in equal measure. He began his career in public life in 1965 by running – and winning – as a registered Democrat on the Republican ticket for district attorney for the city of Philadelphia. He ended it, to all intents and purposes, in 2009 when, his Pennsylvania seat under dire threat from a far-right challenger, he switched back from the Republicans to the Democrats. This time he was less successful, losing in the Democratic primary to a challenger from the left.

In between Specter made his mark as one of the most powerful minds in the Senate, an influential voice in some of the most contentious issues of his time, from abortion to economic policy. His most influential perch was the Senate Judiciary committee, where his aggressive questioning style, honed as a public prosecutor, played a pivotal role in two of the most controversial Supreme Court nominations of recent times.

In 1987 he helped prevent confirmation of the conservative judge and legal scholar Robert Bork, who had been nominated by Ronald Reagan, in the process enraging many in his own Republican party. Four years later he made amends with his blistering attacks on Anita Hill, whose claims of sexual harassment threatened to derail the nomination of Clarence Thomas, nominated by Reagan's successor, George HW Bush.

At one point in he accused Hill of "flat-out perjury" in her testimony. Thomas was eventually confirmed, but such was the venom of womens' groups that the affair almost cost him re-election to the Senate in 1992. The man himself was typically unrepentant: "I did not ask her one unprofessional question," he told The New York Times in 2004.

The son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Specter spent his childhood in Kansas. The family's circumstances were modest; his father started out as a peddler before running a scrap metal business during the Second World War in the small town of Russell – birthplace, as it happened, of Robert Dole, the Republican leader in the Senate for much of the time Specter served there.

After the war the Specter family moved to Philadelphia and, armed with a law degree from Yale, the son won a job in the city district attorney's office. His, hard-hitting forensic style was quickly noticed. In 1964 Specter was taken on as a junior counsel for the Warren Commission set up to investigate the assassination of President Kennedy, where he was originator of the "single-bullet" theory – embraced by the Commission – that the same shot, fired by a single gunman, hit both Kennedy and the Texas governor John Connally, who was travelling in the president's limousine.

The following year, Specter was elected Philadelphia's DA, a job that is often springboard for a successful political career. In 1980, by now a registered Republican, he won the Senate seat vacated by Richard Schweiker, and soon emerged as a power on the Judiciary Committee.

But although Specter was a centrist – he was an early supporter of stem cell research, and a fervent defender of a woman's right to an abortion, and in 2009 was one of only three Republican Senators to back President Obama's $780bn stimulus bill – he was not one of the meek and gentle variety. Never a person to suffer fools, he often came across as arrogant and brusque. "Snarlin' Arlen" was his nickname on Capitol Hill, and his inability to practice touchy-feely politics, and the mistrust he inspired on both left and right, doomed what scant chances he had in his lone presidential bid, for the 1966 Republican nomination. Specter dropped out before a single primary vote was cast and endorsed Dole, who became the party's nominee.

As the Republicans moved right, Specter became steadily more uncomfortable and isolated. As early as 1995 he was describing Christian conservatives as an extremist fringe, and after his support for the 2009 stimulus his position became untenable.

Facing defeat in his 2010 Republican primary Specter switched sides, briefly providing Obama a filibuster-proof Senate majority of 60 in the 100-seat chamber. Unfortunately, Democratic primary voters preferred the liberal Joe Sestak, and Specter's nine political lives were finally exhausted. He died of cancer, first diagnosed in 2005.

Arlen Specter, politician: born Wichita, Kansas 12 February 1930; District Attorney, Philadelphia 1966-1974; US Senator for Pennsylvania 1981-2011; married 1953 Joan Levy (two sons); died Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 14 October 2012.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Corporate Commercial Solicitor

£45000 - £65000 per annum + Excellent: Austen Lloyd: Corporate Commercial Soli...

Year 3 Primary Teacher - Dewsbury

£110 - £155 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: An excellent, last minute opp...

Year 2 Primary Teacher - Dewsbury

£110 - £155 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: An excellent, last minute opp...

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam