“I wasn’t sent to Washington to play it safe. I have something to show for what I’ve done,” he said on the 2010 primary night.
His first official stint in Washington came as junior counsel working on the Warren Commission. In his mid-30s, he authored the controversial “single bullet” theory to explain the Kennedy assassination and then spent the next five decades vigorously defending it. “There will be questions about the assassination of President Kennedy for centuries,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2003. “I’m not reticent about discussing the subject. I have inside knowledge. And being in public life, I have a duty to speak out.”
When Democrats refused him the nomination for Philadelphia district attorney, he ran and won two terms as a Republican. He won his Senate seat on Ronald Reagan’s coattails in 1980, but then spent much of the next eight years fighting with his judicial nominees, sinking the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork.
His last term, however, proved to be a long, slow march against a changing political tide that made it difficult for outspoken centrists to win elections. After barely surviving a primary challenge, he coasted to victory in 2004 and, at a press conference the day after the general election, Specter called Roe v. Wade “inviolate.” That riled conservatives, who required him to issue a statement of principles of how he would handle Supreme Court nominees to become Judiciary Committee chairman.
Conservatives then moved to unilaterally change rules to forbid filibusters on all judicial nominees. Warner and a group of 14 moderates ended the stand-off with their deal, one that Specter played an advisory role in.
Once the 2008 elections shrank Republicans down to just 41 seats, the party’s activist base demanded party unity from the outset of President Obama’s tenure. Specter, joined by Maine’s Republican senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, negotiated with the West Wing to reduce the price tag of the controversial stimulus to less than $800 billion in exchange for their critical support.
By April 2009 Specter had imploded among GOP voters in Pennsylvania as Patrick Toomey (R), now a senator, soared past him. Faced with certain defeat in a GOP primary, Specter went “jury” shopping, in legal parlance, deciding that it would be easier to be a moderate Democrat than a moderate Republican.
Raised politically in an era when party bosses had real power, Specter believed that the endorsements of Obama, Vice President Biden and then-Gov. Ed Rendell could clear the way for him to secure the Democratic nomination.
He spent his final days of campaigning in May 2010 with a handkerchief at his side, frequently wiping his nose from the side effects of chemotherapy during his battle with Hodgkin’s disease. At the time he pronounced himself “fine” and boasted of playing squash nearly every day. Politically, however, he had discovered that his decades of jabbing Democrats as often as Republicans left him without enough support in either party.
“I’ve crossed the aisle perhaps once too often,” Specter said.