DN Editorial: The maddening, magnificent career of Arlen Specter

Posted: October 16, 2012

THOSE WATCHING Sen. Arlen Specter's long career in public service might at times have felt like they were watching a vigorous tennis match between admiration and disappointment.

Admiration, for example, at his vote that torpedoed conservative Supreme Court candidate Robert Bork, then disappointment at his brutal questioning of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas' hearing. Admiration for his intellect and command of issues, and disappointment at his curious "single-bullet theory" of the Kennedy assassination. Admiration for his moderation as a Republican, then disappointment at his somewhat cynical party switch when he lost Republican support (and later, lost his Senate seat.)

Today, with his death at 82, we experience the admiration in his tenacity in the face of multiple health setbacks, including Hodgkin's lymphoma, a brain tumor and open-heart surgery, and disappointment that he wasn't able to bully death so it would leave him alone for at least a few more years.

Tenacious, irascible, tough, a fighter - these are the most common descriptors of Specter, who was Pennsylvania's longest-serving senator. Those words are reductive, though, given the shape of the political battlefield he both played on and shaped. In a political landscape that has become increasingly calcified by the simplistic, Arlen Specter was a complicated man.

He was a key vote in Obama's stimulus bill in 2009, which ended his stay in the Republican party, although throughout his career he had voted with the GOP position only 58 percent of the time, parting ways over such issues as abortion rights and stem-cell research. That's a record that can hardly be imagined in today's Congress of frozen partisanship.

When Specter was elected to the Senate in 1980, there were many moderate Republicans. By the time he left the party in 2009, there were just a few. And when he finally left the Senate in 2010, he gave a "closing argument" rather than a goodbye speech, excoriating senators "who insist on ideological purity as a precondition," bemoaning the fact that compromising had become a dirty word.

Our own editorial page singled him out early on for standing up to divisiveness and obstructionism: "Specter, bless him, has started asking lonely questions about some of the folks who have been providing footsoldiers for his party for years, but have the potential to split it apart . . . Specter had the effrontery to support separation of church and state before an audience that doesn't flinch at this great democracy becoming a theocratic state, like Iran. . ." That was in 1994, when he ran (briefly) for president.

Specter's energy for a fight brought great benefits to the state: he brought billions of federal dollars to Pennsylvania, and his office was known for constituent services. He was known for visiting all 67 counties for town-hall meetings.

While we don't fully agree with former Gov. Ed Rendell's view that Specter "did more for Pennsylvania than anyone, with the possible exception of Ben Franklin," he certainly joins the pantheon of statesmen who have helped shape the country and its political life.

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