Arlen Specter, who died Sunday at 82 following a long battle with cancer, was a vanishing breed: a Republican senator who was both a moderate and a Jew.
The only Jewish Republican senator, he switched parties in 2009 because he felt the GOP had moved so far to the right he felt he could not win his party's nomination for a sixth term, but many Pennsylvania voters saw the switch as opportunism and he lost the Democratic primary the following year.
Looking back over his 30-year career, Pennsylvania's longest serving senator wrote in his memoir, "The fringes have displaced tolerance with purity tests." He was more of a maverick than his colleague, John McCain, who claimed the title; Specter broke with his party on a wide range of issues including abortion, gay rights, stem cell research and President Obama's stimulus package.
He was a strong supporter of Israel throughout his career. At various times he chaired the committees on the Judiciary, Intelligence and Veterans Affairs and was a senior member of the appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, which oversees aid to Israel.
He was never shy about seeking publicity for his achievements, but he also did a lot behind the scenes. On one such occasion he got a personal letter of thanks from the Israeli finance minister; he must have been very pleased because I saw him showing it to people like it was a picture of his first grandchild.
Following the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking in which the Palestinian terrorists threw overboard a wheelchair-bound American, Leon Klinghoffer, Specter was instrumental in pushing through the Senate what came to be known as the "long arm statute." That law has proven a valuable tool in investigating and prosecuting terrorist crimes against Americans overseas by making those actions a criminal offense punishable in American courts.
Specter had been called tenacious, irascible, ambitious, brash, abrasive and short fused – monikers that earned him the nickname Snarlin' Arlen. He was not an easy man to get along with, especially for his staff. There's a famous story of young aide who wrote a brief letter of resignation saying, "Dear Senator. Life is too short to spend another five minutes of working for you. I quit."
The senator saw himself as an interlocutor with Syrian President Hafez Assad, father of the present ruler, but he made no progress despite several trips to Damascus trying to broker peace between Syria and Israel.
Specter was probably the sharpest legal mind in the Senate, and he played a central role in the controversial Supreme Court nominations of Robert H. Bork (opposed) and Clarence Thomas (supported) and the impeachment of President Bill Clinton (opposed).
Specter's party switch helped give the White House the votes needed to pass health care reform. President Obama praised him as "fiercely independent – never putting party or ideology ahead of the people he was chosen to serve."
Since he switched parties there have been no Jewish Republicans in the Senate; at least two are running this year but both are trailing in recent polls. There is only one Jewish Republican in the House, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.