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Portrait of a Fighter

October 18, 2012
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Sen. Arlen Specter was a fighter. If anyone doubted it through­out his long and feisty career, the evidence was clear to the very end: Faced with the grim news that cancer had infiltrated once again this summer, he hung on for nearly two more months. He lost his battle over the weekend, but his legacy lives on.

His determined — some might say irascible — nature worked for and against him throughout his career as a public servant. He fought relentlessly for the causes that mattered to him, including many Jewish ones.

As evidenced by the showing and the eulogies at his funeral at Har Zion Temple on Tuesday, he had a lasting impact not only on his family and friends but on matters as disparate as the makeup of the Supreme Court and the future of life-saving medical research.

“Character is destiny,” Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime friend and colleague, said at the funeral, quoting a Greek philosopher. “And Arlen had exceptional character.” It came through
“in the way he lived his life — never bending, never yielding.”

Specter’s name will forever be associated with the Warren Commission, where he claimed credit for the single-bullet theory of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and with the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he helped defeat Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork and helped confirm Clarence Thomas. Some have never forgotten — nor forgiven him for — the way he questioned Anita Hill, who testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her.

Specter was as unapologetic then as he was years later when he cast the decisive vote for the Obama administration’s stimulus bill and stunned the political establishment by switching political affiliations because he didn’t think he could win the 2010 Republican primary. That ended his political career but his public pursuits continued — as law school lecturer, commentator and even stand-up comedian.

In the Jewish community, the longtime senator is remembered for his voice of moderation as well as his efforts on behalf of Israel, Soviet Jewry, restitution for Holocaust survivors and a host of Jewish issues to which he lent his name and his support through the years.

Though he was not a deeply religious man, he was a proud Jew whose isolated upbringing in small-town Kansas led him to connect to his roots more deeply. It is perhaps fitting that among his many legacies is the one recently named for him and his wife, Joan, at the Perelman Jewish Day School, which his grandchildren attended: a curriculum in civics. May he rest in peace.

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