When former U.S. Senator Arlen Specter was very young, the story goes, he would accompany his father–a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine–and go door to door to peddle cantaloupes during the Great Depression.
The pair moved quickly because local grocers didn’t appreciate the traveling Jewish salesman who took some of their customers. The grocers often called the local sheriff, and the Specters would be hustled out of town.
There is something about this story that emblematizes Specter, the longest-serving senator in Pennsylvania history, who died yesterday morning at age 82. It seems that throughout his life, Specter was constantly performing a feat of survival, both physically and politically, with an outsider’s will that frequently made others want to hustle him out of town.
“When you’re Jewish, you’re different. But I was always fiercely Jewish. I was proud to be Jewish. It was what I was. It was me.”
As tributes began to pour in Specter words like irascible, indefatigable, pedantic, and independent lead the list of euphemisms for a man who was a polarizing political institution during some of the biggest moments in the last few decades of American life. Specter initially entered politics as a Democrat and finished as one, but spent the vast majority of his career as a Republican, including all but one of his 30 years in the Senate. Specter’s place as a moderate enraged and provoked. After all, he was a pro-gay rights, pro-choice Republican who favored stem-cell research, opposed the impeachment of President Clinton, and, as a leading voice on the Senate Judiciary Committee, he nearly single-handedly derailed the nomination of conservative Judge Robert Bork in 1987.
Specter, dubbed “Snarlin’ Arlen” by some of his colleagues, also enraged the left by forging an alliance with ultra-conservative Rick Santorum and supporting the nomination of Clarence Thomas. During the Thomas hearing, Specter infamously led a forceful line of questioning against Anita Hill, a law professor who accused Justice Thomas of sexual harassment when the two worked together. The fallout from the hearing nearly cost Specter his senate seat.
Nevertheless, Specter continued to survive, despite occupying the centrist terrain that often left him scrambling to forge a coalition of supporters. For someone who had grown up in the only Jewish family in the town of Russell, Kansas, he had a knack for endurance. It led him through battles with multiple brain tumors, a heart attack, and two bouts with Hodgkin’s disease.
“No public servant or elected official has done more for the people of Pennsylvania in their career, with the possible exception of Benjamin Franklin,” Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell said on Sunday.
His family left Kansas for Philadelphia–“so my sister could meet and marry a nice Jewish boy,” Specter once explained– and he decamped for the University of Pennsylvania, graduated Phi Beta Kappa, went to the Air Force, and Yale Law School. He served on the Warren Commission and took personal credit for the single bullet theory in the Kennedy assassination findings. Specter also managed to gain the endorsements of President Bush in 2004 and President Obama in 2010. But perhaps most impressively, as a longtime fan of Jackie Mason, Specter took up stand-up comedy as a hobby, citing his years in Washington as a place for practice.
Specter would eventually run out of room to maneuver. With the rise of the Tea Party in 2009, Specter found his election prospects grim in a Republican party that had moved to the right. Following his support for the stimulus bill and with his position imperiled, Specter switched to the Democratic Party, only to lose in the primary. Specter’s political demise may have rung the death knell for an era in American politics where moderates moved forcefully between the seams.