Former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, who embodied a vanishing breed of liberal Republicanism before switching to the Democratic Party at the twilight of his political career, died Sunday after a long battle with cancer, his family announced.
Specter died of complications from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at his home in Philadelphia, his family said. He was 82.
The veteran Pennsylvania politician had overcome numerous serious illnesses over the past two decades, including a brain tumor. He had been in the public eye since serving as a member of the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Specter was elected to the Senate in 1980 and represented Pennsylvania for 30 years, longer than anyone in the state's history. His politically moderate image fit hand-in-glove in the politically blue Northeast, both with its Democratic centrists and its liberal Republicans.
He was also one of America's most prominent Jewish politicians, a rare Republican in a category dominated by Democrats over the decades. And his name is synonymous with Pennsylvania, an idiosyncratic state that pushes and pulls between the two parties, and his home, the staunchly Democratic city of Philadelphia.
In 2006, Philadelphia magazine called him "one of the few true wild cards of Washington politics ... reviled by those on both the right and the left."
"Charming and churlish, brilliant and pedantic, he can be fiercely independent, entertainingly eccentric and simply maddening," the profile read.
Former Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, called Specter "a mentor, colleague and a political institution" who "did more for the people of Pennsylvania over his more than 30-year career with the possible exception of Benjamin Franklin." And Pat Toomey, the Republican who now holds Specter's old Senate seat, praised him as "a man of sharp intelligence and dogged determination."
And at the White House, President Barack Obama said Specter "was always a fighter."
"From his days stamping out corruption as a prosecutor in Philadelphia to his three decades of service in the Senate, Arlen was fiercely independent -- never putting party or ideology ahead of the people he was chosen to serve," Obama said in a written statement on Specter's death.
And Vice President Joe Biden lamented the loss of "my friend," "who never walked away from his principles and was at his best when they were challenged." Biden will travel to Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday for Specter's funeral, according to the White House.
G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll and professor of pubic affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, said Frank Sinatra's song "My Way" could apply to Specter.
"There isn't any doubt in many respects he was an unusual politician," Madonna said. "He didn't look at polls. He didn't track how his comments were playing out in the press. ...
"He was fundamentally a pragmatist who could bend with the times," Madonna said, and he believed greatly that government could help people.
"The Republicanism in his day, it was a different kind of Republican. He was a Philadelphian, and not into that staunchly conservative Republicanism that we see" today.
Madonna called Specter an "indefatigable" public figure, highly demanding of both himself and those who worked for him over the years. He had a few election losses but he was undeterred by defeat, the prospects of losing and the challenges he faced.
"The last thing you would have thought about Arlen Specter was that he was born in Kansas," Madonna said. "He always came across as kind of urbane. He had a kind of caustic sense of humor."
But Specter in fact was born in Wichita, the youngest child of Lillie Shanin and Harry Specter, an immigrant from Ukraine. He grew up in Russell, Kansas, also the hometown of another Republican icon, a one-time presidential nominee and senator, Bob Dole.
After graduating from Russell High School in 1947, Specter first went to the University of Oklahoma. But he eventually went east for his higher education. He earned a bachelor's degree in international relations in 1951 from the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
He was in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War from 1951 to 1953, serving as a second lieutenant in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. He returned to his studies and graduated from Yale Law School in 1956.
After Yale, he started practicing law and became an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia.
He served on the Warren Commission at the recommendation of Rep. Gerald Ford, later president. Specter is credited with co-authoring the "single bullet theory," which suggested that some of the wounds to Kennedy and then-Texas Gov. John Connally were caused by the same bullet.
Even though he was a registered Democrat, Specter ran successfully for Philadelphia district attorney on the Republican ticket in 1965 and eventually registered as a Republican. He lost an election for Philadelphia mayor in 1967.
He served as district attorney until 1974 and prosecuted corruption cases against Philadelphia magistrates and Teamsters.
Specter ran for the U.S. Senate in 1976, but he was defeated in the Republican primary by John Heinz. He ran for governor but was defeated by Dick Thornburgh in the primary.