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Former Sen. Arlen Specter, 82, Prioritized Law, Policy Over Party Affiliation

October 15, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Arlen Specter served in the U.S. Senate for nearly 30 years, during which he served as a Democrat and Republican. As a moderate, he frequently ignored party lines, speaking his mind on issues from judicial appointments to health care reform and stimulus spending. Kwame Holman remembers Specter who died from cancer at age 82.
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RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, a longtime senator revered by both parties passed away over the weekend.

Kwame Holman reports.

KWAME HOLMAN: For three decades, Arlen Specter was a leading moderate in the U.S. Senate. His name never was on major legislation, but he made his mark as a maverick.

In 1987, as a Republican, he opposed the nomination of conservative Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court, joining Democrats in challenging Bork during confirmation hearings.

ARLEN SPECTER, former U.S. senator: You said it was controversial. I think it was that controversial because there was no legal underpinning for it.

ROBERT BORK, Supreme Court nominee: Senator, I think there was.

KWAME HOLMAN: Four years later, Specter supported Clarence Thomas’ nomination and outraged liberals with his aggressive questioning of Anita Hill, after she accused Thomas of sexual harassment.

ARLEN SPECTER: How could you allow this kind of reprehensible conduct to go on right in the headquarters, without doing something about it?

ANITA HILL, witness: Well, it was a very trying and difficult decision for me not to say anything further.

KWAME HOLMAN: In 2005, as he battled cancer, Specter looked back on those political fights with the NewsHour’s Gwen Ifill.

ARLEN SPECTER: I’m still hearing about my vote against Judge Bork. And I’m still hearing about my questioning of Professor Hill.

And I called those shots as I saw them. And I think that history will vindicate me on them, Gwen.

KWAME HOLMAN: Specter got into politics in the 1960s as a Democrat and prosecutor in Philadelphia. And he helped investigate the assassination of President Kennedy, developing the single-bullet theory of the killing.

In 1980, he had won his Senate seat in the Reagan landslide that year.

But as the years went by, Specter increasingly angered GOP conservatives. In early 2009, he voted for President Obama’s stimulus bill. And within weeks, with the president and vice president looking on, he switched back to the Democrats.

Specter’s switch gave Senate Democrats the 60 votes to overcome filibusters and helped them pass health care reform. Campaigning in 2010, he charged Republicans had moved too far to the right.

ARLEN SPECTER: If you don’t cotton up to the Tea Party gang, you’re no good.

KWAME HOLMAN: It was in keeping with his years of courting Pennsylvania’s blue-collar workers and labor unions.

DAVID REICHARD, union president: We have been with him for a long, long time. He’s never let us down. He’s been true to his word, an honest man.

KWAME HOLMAN: But despite that sentiment and President Obama’s support, Specter lost the 2010 Democratic primary to Congressman Joe Sestak.

Along the way, over two decades, Specter repeatedly fought off cancer, but in late August, he confirmed he was ailing again, this time with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and yesterday came word he had died at his home in Philadelphia at age 82.

In a statement, the president summed up Specter’s long career, saying: “Arlen was fiercely independent, never putting party or ideology ahead of the people he was chosen to serve.”

The funeral will be tomorrow in Pennsylvania. The vice president will attend.

RAY SUAREZ: You can read the transcript from Gwen’s 2005 interview with Specter on our website.