Love him or hate him — and some people, at various times, did both — former Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who died Sunday at age 82 in Philadelphia, was one of the most fascinating figures in modern American politics.
Specter served in the U.S. Senate from 1980 to 2011, the longest tenure in his state’s history, and spent most of it befuddling anyone who tried to stick an ideological label on him. From the start he was a Republican, but he frequently switched sides on issues, and near the end changed his party affiliation to Democrat, claiming — in the reverse of Ronald Reagan’s famous statement — that the increasingly conservative GOP had left him, rather than vice versa. In truth, though, it probably was equally tough for partisans from either side to embrace the notoriously cantankerous and unpredictable Specter, who exemplified the sort of freethinking, pragmatic moderate that’s an anathema in today’s ultra-polarized politics. “It may be that a senator cannot do his job without angering everyone, sometimes,” he once offered.
But Specter will be long remembered, in part because he played a pivotal — and provocative — role in some of the most controversial episodes in modern history. Here are five such moments in which he helped change America:
- The Kennedy assassination. As an assistant counsel to the Warren Commission in 1964, Specter was the one who came up with the famous “single-bullet theory,” which argued that one of the two shots allegedly fired by assassin Lee Harvey Oswald struck both President John F. Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally. That theory, essential to the commission’s argument that Oswald acted alone, also helped to launch a legion of conspiracy theorists who insisted that he helped to cover up the real story.
- Blocking Bork. In 1987, Specter angered his fellow Republicans by joining with Democrats to reject President Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. One fellow Republican, a state legislator, offered that his vote was “nothing sort of treason,” while another said that he would consider supporting Specter in future elections only if his opponent was Jack the Ripper.
- Attacking Anita Hill. When then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas found himself mired in controversy during his 1991 confirmation hearings, it was Specter — a former prosecutor — who rode to the rescue, using his cross-examination skills to attack the credibility of Thomas’s reluctant accuser, Anita Hill. Specter arguably was responsible for Thomas ascending to the Supreme Court, and it’s safe to say that a lot of liberals never forgave him for it.
- Not the “sole decider.” In 2007, Specter again angered Republicans by challenging President Bush’s view of his constitutional power, and urged him to forge an agreement with Congress to share decision-making powers in the Iraq war.
- Backing the Obama stimulus. In 2009, Specter was one of just three Republicans in Congress who crossed party lines to vote for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a vote that he called the most important of his career. Specter also went on to support the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, popularly known as “Obamacare,” and then reportedly allowed Obama to persuade him to become a Democrat.
One of Specter’s more endearing qualities was his sense of humor. Other than Minnesota Democrat Al Franken, a former Saturday Night Live writer and performer, Specter was probably the most famous comedian ever to serve in the Senate. Here he is, performing at a Pittsburgh-area comedy club in 2009.