HARRISBURG (KDKA/AP) — Former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the Republican-turned-Democrat who played a key role in many Supreme Court nominations, has died. He was 82.
His son, Shanin Specter, says his father died Sunday morning at his home in Philadelphia, from complications of non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
In some ways Arlen Specter’s whole life was a fight.
Born in Kansas in 1930, his family fought to survive during the Depression. After coming east for college and Law school, Specter fought criminals as a prosecutor in Philadelphia.
And, after President Kennedy was killed in 1963, Specter would find himself in a never-ending fight with those who claimed the assassination was a conspiracy.
As counsel to the Warren Commission, it was Specter who developed the single-bullet theory. Decades later, he’d still be defending it even as the doubters fought back.
“The single bullet theory, which I worked on, has been upheld after numerous reexaminations by the networks, by many books,” Specter said.
Specter would go on to lose a few rounds in political campaigns; but in 1980, he won election to the U.S. Senate and would go on to win reelection four times – serving 30 years, a Pennsylvania record.
The nation took note of Specter’s fighting spirit in 1991.
His aggressive questioning of Anita Hill, a witness in the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings, angered feminists.
But more recent were his fights against serious illness. By 2005, he had already beaten a brain tumor and bypass surgery, but now it was cancer.
“If you have to get something, Hodgkin’s is about the best of the bad things to get,” he said at a press conference.
He joked about a side effect of his treatment – going bald:
“I’m now considering the alternatives of being a new sex symbol… you certain couldn’t make me an old sex symbol; either a new sex symbol or wearing baseball caps, and my sense is to wear baseball caps.”
He thought that fight had been won, but within three years, a recurrence.
“I consider it another bump in the road,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of bumps.”
And as that battle endured, Specter also knew he faced the most serious fight yet for his political life. A centrist Republican, Specter could feel his political footing fail him as the Tea Party gained strength.
When he announced he was becoming a Democrat in 2009, he said he was merely following hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania Republicans who had already made the switch.
“The party has shifted very far to the right,” he said. “It was pretty far to the right in 2004, but you take away a couple hundred thousand Republicans and they want to vote in a Democratic Primary, they’re dissatisfied with the party is a pretty obvious conclusion.”
The party switch would put him in a Primary battle in the 2010 midterms against then-Congressman Joe Sestak. At age 80, Specter was a fighter still.
“You say I’m as hard charging as ever, I don’t think that’s so, I think I’m harder charging than ever because I’ve got more experience now,” he said.
But this time the battle was lost and on that election night, his supporters knew an unprecedented era in Pennsylvania politics was ending.
“It’s been a great privilege to serve the people of Pennsylvania,” he told the crowd.
But in the very end, if you didn’t think Specter would go out swinging, you hadn’t been paying attention. As he spoke on the Senate floor for the final time he railed against a rush to the political extremes.
“In some quarters, compromise has become a dirty word,” he said.
And he let out a battle cry against partisan gridlock. Rather than a farewell address, the combative senator said this was a closing argument.
(TM and © Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)