Former Sen. Arlen Specter Dies

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Oct. 14 2012 2:08 PM

Former Senator Arlen Specter Dies at 82

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Former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter was seen as a centrist who angered both Republicans and Democrats throughout his career

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Former Sen. Arlen Specter, the longest-serving Pennsylvania senator, died of cancer Sunday at his home in Philadelphia at the age of 82. Specter died from complications of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, his son Shanin confirmed to the Associated Press. Specter was one of those lawmakers that barely exist anymore: a moderate Republican. He was swept into the Senate as part of the Reagan landslide of 1980 but he switched parties in 2009, giving Democrats a supermajority in the Senate, when it was clear he would lose the Republican primary after voting in favor of President Obama’s stimulus bill. Despite having the support of Obama and other key Democrats, he lost the Democratic primary the following year to then-Rep. Joe Sestak, who, in turn, lost Specter’s seat to Republican Rep. Pat Toomey.

Specter first gained national attention as a young prosecutor, who, as assistant counsel to the Warren Commission, was seen as the main architect of the controversial “single-bullet theory” that claimed the same bullet killed President John F. Kennedy and wounded then-Texas Gov. John Connally, notes the Washington Post. That theory was the focus of the 1991 film JFK. In the Senate he was “long regarded as its sharpest legal mind,” points out the New York Times. Besides his party switch, he’ll likely most be remembered by the key role he played in several Supreme Court nominations, helping defeat conservative nominee Robert Bork in 1987 as well as securing Clarence Thomas’s confirmation by aggressively questioning law professor Anita Hill four years later (video of the questioning after the jump).

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Although Republicans were angry at Specter when he switched parties, many had kind words to say about the senator, noting how he always seemed to have a way of inserting himself into the most prominent congressional debates, points out Politico. “He gave a lot of dedicated service to the country,” Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said. “I didn’t always agree with him, but I was always amazed by his determination to be in the fight, to be in the debate, to look for a position that made him a significant factor in whatever discussion was going on.”

When he left the Senate in 2011, Specter sat down for a series of extended oral history interviews with the Pennsylvania Cable Network. A preview clip is below, and the entire series is available in C-Span’s video library.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.