Arlen Specter, the former Philadelphia prosecutor who played a key role in the Warren Commission report on the assassination of President Kennedy and went on to become Pennsylvania's longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate, died at his Philadelphia home Sunday. His death at 82 followed a years-long fight with cancer.
Often a controversial figure during his five terms in the Senate (1981-2011), Specter was, for most of those years, a maverick Republican and self-styled "moderate" who saw himself as a defender of the middle ground between the "intolerant right" and the "incompetent left." His ardent defense of "abortion rights" and his role in torpedoing the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert Bork in 1987 earned him the wrath of the party's conservatives. Four years later, he earned the scorn of liberals and women's rights organizations when he played an equally pivotal role in supporting the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas and rigorously cross-examining the key witness against Thomas, Anita Hill, who claimed Thomas sexually harassed her when she worked for him years earlier in the U.S. Department of Justice.
Though he balanced his stance as a liberal on social issues by claiming the mantle of fiscal conservatism, his support for President Obama's $797-billion economic stimulus bill and healthcare reform further alienated him from party conservatives. Preparing to run for a sixth term in 2010, Specter anticipated defeat in a Republican primary battle with his conservative challenger, former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey. He switched his party affiliation to Democrat in 2009, but lost in the Democratic primary the next year to Rep. Joe Sestak. Sestak then lost to Toomey, now the state's junior U.S. senator.
A native of Wichita, Kansas, Specter was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. He grew up in the rural Russell, Kansas, the hometown of former Republican Senate leader and 1996 presidential nominee Robert Dole. He graduated as a Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Pennsylvania in 1951 and, after two years in the Air Force, entered Yale Law School, where he edited the law journal. He received his law degree in 1956 and went into private practice for three years before his appointment as assistant district attorney.
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Photo of Arlen Specter: AP Images