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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee, in for Guy Raz.

Former Senator Arlen Specter, one of the most influential senators of the last half century, died today after a battle with cancer. He was 82. The five-term senator was a key member of the Judiciary Committee and a major player in the confirmation proceedings of 14 Supreme Court nominees.

But as NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports, he was consistently a thorn for leaders of both political parties and their presidents.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Arlen Specter, reviled by the right, mistrusted by the left and ever unpredictable, was nonetheless a major force in the U.S. Senate for three decades, casting what were often crucial votes on everything from judicial nominations to economic policy.

A lot of things made him the voodoo doll for GOP conservatives: his outspoken support for abortion rights, his advocacy of civil rights legislation and, of course, the cardinal sin, his vote against the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork in 1987. Nearly two decades later, I asked him if he regretted the Bork vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SENATOR ARLEN SPECTER: Absolutely not. Judge Bork had a view of the Constitution which was different from anybody else who'd ever been nominated to the court. He was doubtless a brilliant man, but he could have turned the Constitution upside down.

TOTENBERG: Specter was hardly the darling of the left either. Democrats were infuriated when Specter, faced with a likely Republican primary challenge in 1991, led the hostile questioning of Anita Hill at the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPECTER: It is my legal judgment that the testimony of Professor Hill in the morning was flat-out perjury.

TOTENBERG: Specter's treatment of Hill, a young law professor who had come forward to testify that Thomas sexually harassed her, nearly cost him his Senate seat anyway. In 1992, his Democratic opponent made the hearings the central issue of the campaign, and Specter eked out the narrowest of victories. He remained a moderate Republican nonetheless, consistently giving the GOP leadership political heartburn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SPECTER: It is sort of an occupational hazard of mine to be stuck in the middle, and I will support my party when I can, but if it's a matter of conscience, I may have to disagree.

TOTENBERG: One of those disagreements came in 2009 when Specter was one of only three Republicans to vote for President Obama's stimulus, a vote that so infuriated his own party that polls showed Specter could not survive his next Republican primary. So with support from President Obama, he switched parties, only to be defeated in the Democratic primary. Specter would later say that his own experiences as a child of the Depression were what led him to cast that stimulus vote to prevent another depression.

Born in Kansas, Specter grew up in the only Jewish family in the farming community of Russell. During the Depression, his father went door-to-door selling cantaloupes. In school, Specter made good grades, graduated from college with honors and got his law degree from Yale after serving in the Air Force during the Korean War. He also served as counsel to the Warren Commission probing the assassination of President Kennedy.

He was a young man on the move when in 1965, he was elected district attorney of Philadelphia, amassing a record as a crusading prosecutor over two terms. In 1981, after losing four other electoral races, he was elected to the U.S. Senate seat that he would hold for the next 30 years.

There, Specter was admired for his mastery of public policy matters large and small; respected for his hard work, his intellectual acumen and his sheer doggedness. But he was also notorious for his sharp elbows and porcupine-prickly personality. In a 2005 interview, we had this exchange.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TOTENBERG: You know they call you Snarlin' Arlen?

SPECTER: (LAUGHTER)

It's a bad rap. It all came about because some people call me Darlin' Arlen, and they were trying to look for something that rhymed with Arlen and darlin', which was nasty.

TOTENBERG: If not the most charming senator, Specter was among the toughest. In his 70s, he battled brain cancer, then non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He looked frail, small and bald, but he refused to give up, maintaining a grueling Senate schedule while he underwent chemotherapy. Even as his exhaustion was palpable, he was up every morning at 6 a.m., playing squash, giving no quarter to the disease, just as he gave no quarter to critics or political opponents.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SPECTER: My definition of winning at squash is playing and surviving, and I've never lost a match.

TOTENBERG: Today, Arlen Specter finally lost his match with survival. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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