Arlen Specter, a former five-term United States senator, died on Sunday morning at the age of 82 from complications of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.
Specter, a 1951 Phi Beta Kappa College graduate and adjunct professor at the Law School, will be remembered as a determined politician who strived for moderation in government.
Specter, who had overcome several fatal diseases throughout his career and was discharged from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania on Sept. 7, remained active in recent weeks despite his health. He joined the Penn Law faculty in fall 2011, teaching “Congress, Constitution and the Supreme Court.” He taught at Penn Law for the last time on Oct. 4.
“He shook my hand and he told me that he looked forward to the next class,” said Matthew Wiener, his former General Counsel who co-taught the class. “He was always looking forward to the long term,” he added.
Wiener will be spending the next class discussing Specter’s contributions to American law.
Specter, who served as the Philadelphia District Attorney from 1966 to 1974, “identified himself professionally first and foremost as a lawyer,” Wiener said.
The senator had been recently discussing plans to write a book on the process of confirming Supreme Court justices, Wiener added.
Michael Fitts, dean of Penn Law, said in a statement, “I join the Penn community, to which he was so devoted, in extending my condolences to his family. We will miss him greatly.”
“Arlen Specter was a giant in American politics, dedicating his life to public service,” the statement read, commending his commitment “to passing this knowledge on to our students in his course on the separation of powers.”
Specter served as a Republican in the U.S. Senate for 30 years, which made him the longest-serving senator in Pennsylvania. But in April 2009, he defected to the Democratic Party, citing the GOP’s ideology as moving “farther and farther to the right.”
Specter had also declared at the time, “I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate — not prepared to have that record decided by that jury.”
He lost to former Rep. Joe Sestak (D.-Pa.) in the subsequent Democratic primary.
Many prominent political figures have honored Specter’s legacy — including his rival.
Pat Toomey, who lost the hotly contested 2004 Republican primary to Specter but took over his seat after winning the 2010 general election, called him “a man of sharp intelligence and dogged determination.” He added that “his impact on our state and public policy will not be forgotten.”
President Obama said in a statement that “Arlen Specter was always a fighter … Arlen was fiercely independent — never putting party or ideology ahead of the people he was chosen to serve.”
“Sen. Specter did more for the people of Pennsylvania over his more than 30 year career with the possible exception of Benjamin Franklin,” said former Pennsylvania governor and 1965 College graduate Ed Rendell. He described Specter as his “first boss.”
Colin Kavanaugh, a 2011 College graduate led the Students for Specter campaign effort for Specter’s unsuccessful bid in the 2010 Democratic primary election. Kavanaugh, a former Daily Pennsylvanian staff writer and columnist, has also worked twice in Specter’s offices and met him several times. “His whole career was about helping Pennsylvanians,” he said. “He’s irreplaceable.”
College senior Graham White, who ran Students for Specter with Kavanaugh, said Specter was unique for his “genuine desire to work across the aisle.”
“Today Washington, D.C. is so polarized, it’s because there aren’t enough politicians like him,” he added.
Third-year law student Melanie Foreman, who took Specter’s class last fall, said in an email, “As a resident of Pennsylvania, I am honored to have had the opportunity to be in a class with him. He gave so much of himself to Pennsylvania over the course of his career.”
Specter has participated in some of the most riveting moments in the history of American politics, often as a controversial figure angering conservatives and liberals alike.
In 1987, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he helped block the nomination of conservative Justice Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. He led a tough interrogation of Bork on constitutional principles.
However, after becoming chair of the committee in 2005, he helped nominate conservative justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. He led an aggressive cross-examination of Anita Hill, a law professor who had accused Thomas of sexual harassment, helping him win the nomination and drawing ire from feminist groups.
The former senator also contributed to the acquittal of President Bill Clinton in efforts to impeach him in the senate in 1999.
Specter was also instrumental to the passage of President Obama’s February 2009 stimulus package, as one of only three Republicans who signed off on it.
He has supported the advance of medical research throughout his career. In 2001, he introduced a bipartisan bill that doubled funding for the National Institutes of Health, and he more recently pushed to legalize federal funding for stem cell research.
“Wherever he was in his life, including in the senate, he left a very large footprint,” Wiener said. But his legacy extends beyond the senate floor.
As an assistant counsel in the Warren Commission’s investigation on the assassination of President Kennedy, he co-authored the “single bullet theory” which posited that President John F. Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally had been struck by the same bullet.