A U.S. senator for 30 years, Arlen Specter was many things we see less of today — most notably, a moderate and an independent thinker. He was also a dogged survivor, having battled a brain tumor and the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that finally took his life on Oct. 14. Born in Kansas, Specter was a Democrat until 1965, then a Republican, until 2009, when he became a Democrat again. Suspicions about the motives behind that last switch undoubtedly contributed to his loss in the 2010 Democratic primary to Joe Sestak, who in the general election lost to Pat Toomey — to whom, it’s worth noting, the American Conservative Union in 2011 gave a lifetime rating of 96.
Moving here as a college student to transfer into Penn, Specter made Philadelphia his main home for the rest of his life, and before his long tenure in the Senate, he left his stamp on our city. He was elected Philadelphia district attorney in 1965, serving two terms. He unsuccessfully tried to be our mayor and also our governor. It was the U.S. Senate bid that finally did the trick, and clearly that job stuck. His difficult-to-pin-downness came through not just in his party-affiliation switches, but in stands he took throughout his career: He supported both capital punishment and abortion rights; he voted to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell”; he criticized Republicans over Bill Clinton’s impeachment; he opposed gun control.
Two small chapters in his long career merit asterisks: His nasty treatment of Anita Hill was unforgivably offensive, and conspiracy theorists will be ever in his debt, and ever churning away, thanks to Specter’s role in co-authoring the single-bullet theory of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.