Arlen Specter Biography

Lawyer, U.S. Representative (1930–2012)
Arlen Specter was Philadelphia District Attorney and was elected to the senate five times. He helped initiate the reauthorization of the Patriot Act.


Arlen Specter was born on February 12, 1930, in Wichita, Kansas. He was Philadelphia District Attorney from 1965 to 1974. He won a senate seat in 1979, and was re-elected in 1986, 1992, 1998 and 2004. In 1995, he announced his presidential candidacy, but suspended his campaign. Specter helped initiate the 2005 reauthorization of the Patriot Act. He died on October 14, 2012, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Early Life

Born on February 12, 1930, in Wichita, Kansas, Arlen Specter was the youngest child of Russian immigrants Lillie Shanin and Harry Specter. Specter's mother was a homemaker, and his father was a former WWI vet who -- after sustaining injuries during combat -- returned to the United States to work odd jobs as a fruit peddler, tailor and junkyard owner.

Specter studied first at the University of Oklahoma. He then transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he became a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He majored in international relations, and graduated in 1951. After receiving his bachelor's degree, Specter enlisted in the United States Air Force, serving from 1951 to 1953. He served during the Korean War.

District Attorney

After returning home to the United States, Specter began studying law at Yale University, where he graduated in 1956. That same year, he was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar and opened the Specter & Katz law practice with colleague Marvin Katz, who later became a Federal District Court Judge in Philadelphia. From 1959 to 1964, Specter worked as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, under District Attorney James Crumlish.

In 1964, Specter became a top staffer for the Warren Commission, where he investigated President John F. Kennedy's assassination. It was during this time that Specter helped develop the "single-bullet theory," which suggested that President Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally were wounded by the same bullet. This was a crucial theory for the Warren Commission; injuries from separate bullets would have meant more than one assassin, and imply a conspiracy.

A registered Democrat, Specter ran for Philadelphia District Attorney in 1965 on the Republican ticket. He beat out his former boss, James Crumlish, for the position and subsequently changed his registration to Republican. He served as the D.A. until 1974.

Running for Office

In 1975, Specter resumed his law practice and attempted two runs for a Republican seat in the Senate. Both campaigns failed. He returned to his law practice, and was admitted to the New Jersey Bar in 1979. That same year, Senate Republican Richard Schweiker announced his retirement. Seizing the opportunity, Specter ran a third time for a seat in the Senate. He faced former Pittsburgh Mayor Peter F. Flaherty in the race. Specter won the election by a narrow 2.5 percent margin.

Specter was re-elected for his Senate seat in 1986, and again in 1992. On March 31, 1995, he announced his candidacy for the United States presidency, running as a moderate against incumbent President Bill Clinton. Although he gained his party's support, Specter suspended his campaign before the Republican primaries in order to endorse Kansas Senator Bob Dole. Dole lost the election to President Clinton.

Specter was re-elected to the Senate in 1998, and again in 2004. During his Senate tenure, he sided with conservatives on some divisive issues, and with liberals on others. His voting record was almost precisely at the midpoint of the Senate. Specter once stated that he was "personally opposed to abortion," but was "a supporter of a woman's right to choose." He also strongly supported the death penalty and opposed most gun control. Additionally, he supported affirmative action and voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

In 1998 and 1999, Specter criticized his party for its impeachment of President Bill Clinton, claiming that Clinton had not received a fair trial. Specter also worked for the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, which the Senate passed in July 2005. Republicans attempted to block the agreement in December, but the bill passed in March 2006. In July 2006, Specter called for an independent commission to investigate the incarceration policies at Guantanamo, but the Defense Department blocked him from holding a hearing there.

Personal Life

On February 16, 2005, Specter announced that he had been diagnosed with an advanced form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a type of cancer. Specter continued his work during chemotherapy and ended treatment in July of 2005. In April of 2008, Specter announced the return of his lymphoma, and underwent a second round of chemotherapy. He went back into remission in July of 2008. Beginning in the early 2000s, Specter played a major role in encouraging medical research.

Initially saying he would run for Senate re-election in 2010 on the Republican ticket, Specter shocked Washington on April 28, 2009, when he announced he was switching his party affiliation, returning to the Democratic Party. Claiming that he had grown increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy, Specter lost the Democratic primary nomination to Joe Sestak.


Specter died from complications of non-Hodgkins lymphoma on October 14, 2012, at his home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was 82 years old. He was survived by his wife, Joan Levy, sons Shanin and Stephen, and his  four grandchildren, Silvi, Perri, Lilli and Hatti.

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