Murray, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — As Arlen Specter leaves the Senate after 30 years, the one-time corruption-busting Philadelphia prosecutor and architect of the "single-bullet theory" of the John F. Kennedy assassination says he wouldn't change a thing about his zig-zag-zig political path.
Specter began and ended — for now — his political life as a Democrat and spent the intervening four decades as a Republican. But he sees himself as an independent who often bucked party leadership — ultimately ending his career.
"I have always agreed with (John F.) Kennedy that sometimes party asks too much," Specter said in his last news media interview in his Washington office on Dec. 23. "My tenure in the Senate was really as an independent and whichever, regardless of party label."
In February 2009, he provided a key vote for President Obama's economic stimulus package, the only congressional Republican facing re-election in 2010 to do so. That vote so enraged Pennsylvania Republicans — and solidified GOP support for conservative former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey — that Specter returned to the Democratic Party, only to be beaten in its May primary.
It was Specter's first race as a Democrat, and Democrats who had voted against him for years denied him a sixth term by nominating Joe Sestak instead. Toomey narrowly defeated Sestak in the November election and will succeed Specter when he's sworn in Wednesday.
His independent streak aside, Specter is a survivor, with the physical resilience to stand up to a brain tumor and two run-ins with Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system.
He is Pennsylvania's longest-serving U.S. senator, savvy enough to court conservatives before primary elections and the rest of the state's moderate and Democratic voters during general elections while advancing his own influence and interests. He weathered firestorms from conservatives and liberals, and criticism that he staked out positions on both sides of the same, controversial issue.
He has traveled the world and straddled generations, meeting Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Menachem Begin, Pope John Paul II, Mikhail Gorbachev and Fidel Castro.
Specter is unlikely to go down in history as one of the great U.S. senators. But he was widely regarded as a smart, tireless and effective legislator who used his seniority to work the levers of power to serve constituents and bring home tax dollars.
Intellectually, he was head and shoulders above most of his fellow senators and showed a serious national engagement, beyond just taking care of constituents, said Stephen Hess, a former presidential adviser and a senior fellow emeritus in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"We used to tend to measure our senators on whether they were a showhorse or a workhorse," Hess said. "It's fair to say that he was both."
Specter used his willingness to cross party lines on issues to bolster his own clout.
In 2001, he won more money for education and debt reduction by voting with Democrats to slice $450 billion from President George W. Bush's package of tax cuts. He negotiated $10 billion for medical research when he agreed to vote for the Obama stimulus.
He considers that stimulus vote — a matter of principle, he said, to help the nation avoid a second Great Depression — the most important of some 10,000 he cast in the Senate and his persistence in winning more money for the National Institutes of Health his most important accomplishment. But not his legacy.
"When I'm asked about legacy, I say it's too early to talk about legacy," said Specter, 80.
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