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Arlen Specter (1930-2012)

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It has been said that no one has done more for the state of Pennsylvania than Benjamin Franklin. It has also been said that Pennsylvania Senator Alren Specter runs a close second.

Specter was born in Kansas but he moved to Pennsylvania to attend the University of Pennsylvania and from that day forth, he remained a son of the Keystone State. He graduated from Yale law school in 1956 and then moved back to Philadelphia, where he launched a legal career. During that time, he worked as an assistant counsel for the Warren Commission investigting the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and in that capacity, he co-authored the “magic bullet” theory that explained how wounds to Texas Governor John Connally could have been caused by the same bullet that killed Kennedy. This, in turn, explained how the assassination was the act of a single shooter and not part of a conspiracy.

While debate lingered over his work on the Warren Commission, Specter ran successfully for Philadelphia District Attorney in 1965 on the Republican ticket. Previously, he had been a Democrat, and for switching parties, he was labeled “Benedict Arlen.” After two terms as attorney general, he lost his bid for a third and subsequently lost bids for the U.S. Senate in 1976 and for Pennsylvania Governor in 1978. But he won a race for U.S. Senate in 1980, assumed office in 1981, and stayed in that position until January 3, 2011.

Specter’s 30-year career in the Senate made him the longest-serving Senator in Pennsylvania’s history, serving an unprecedented five consecutive terms. He was known as both a Pennsylvania-first legislator and as a moderate Republican who broke with his party on difficult votes more than a few times on topics such as abortion, illegal immigrants, minimum wage, consumer protection and affirmative action. He deeply opposed the domestic wiretapping provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, and in 2009 he was one of only three Republicans to break ranks and support the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which prompted calls from within the GOP for his removal from office.

By this time, Specter was more popular among Democrats than Republicans, and he switched parties, citing an increasingly rightward shift among the GOP that was at odds with his more moderate stance. Others, however, noted that Specter’s move was more the practicality of a career politician than an ideological stand, as he stood virtually no chance of holding off Republican challengers in the 2012 mid-term elections. As a Democrat, he voted more along party lines than he did as a Republican. Perhaps his last major vote was his support of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Specter died at his home on October 14 from complications stemming from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 82. Specter had battled cancer twice before, in 2005 and 2008. Both were public battles, as underwent chemotherapy and lost his hair all while continuing to carry out the duties of his office. He had been diagnosed with cancer once again in August, but as he underwent treatment, he vowed to continue working, and to return to his office as soon as he could.

Specter died at a time when approval ratings for Congress were in a deep trough and seem unlikely to rise significantly any time soon. The public he served had grown tired of endless political fighting carried out by career politicians who often seemed more interested in serving their party, and their own re-election bids, than in serving the constituents they were elected to represent. Specter surely was not immune to this either. But in his final days, as he called for a greater willingness for both sides of the aisle to reach out to each other, he seemed to understand his constituents’ frustrations.

His readiness to vote against his own party, and ultimately to leave it (twice, no less) were the marks of a representative who stuck first to his own convictions and to those of his constituents than to a larger ideology. Perhaps if Washington and our state capitals were filled more with politicians like that, than with the ranks of the red and blue party faithful, our government would not be as dysfunctionally riven as it has been in recent years. After all, one should not seek office to serve a party. One should do it to serve the people. 


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