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“He’s not somebody who will win Miss Popularity or Miss Congeniality, but at the same time, he will win the prize for earnestness and hard work and determination,” then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) told Philadelphia Magazine in 2006.
Specter wasn’t all gruff curmudgeon. His deadpan humor was legendary on the Hill, and after he exited the Senate, he moonlighted as a comedian who was unafraid to take on his old colleagues and other politicians, such as failed GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain.
“Herman Cain has always had a problem with grammar. No matter how hard his teachers tried, they couldn’t convince Herman Cain that harass was one word,” Specter told a crowd at Caroline’s Comedy Club in New York earlier this year, according to Business Insider.
Specter spent most of his young life in Kansas. He graduated from the same high school as former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R). The son of an immigrant from Ukraine, Specter moved quite a bit in his younger years before settling — and becoming a fixture — in Philadelphia.
He was elected district attorney in Philadelphia as a Republican in 1965, even though he had been a Democrat up to that point in his life. He served two terms before losing his bid for a third. Failed election campaigns followed until 1980, when he won the Senate seat being vacated by Richard Schweiker (R).
Specter rose through the ranks on both the Judiciary and Appropriations committees, coming to national prominence during Supreme Court confirmation proceedings in the late 1980s. He opposed President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987. Many political watchers speculated that the conservative blowback he received for opposing Bork inspired his forceful defense of Thomas against sexual harassment charges by Hill four years later.
Specter’s aggressive grilling of Hill during the Thomas confirmation hearings infuriated many women, and his treatment of Hill inspired his 1992 Democratic opponent, Lynn Yeakel, to take him on.
In 1995, Specter announced he would run against President Bill Clinton, largely to be a more centrist presence in the GOP nomination fight.
“There are those in our party who would lead us down a different path and squander this unique moment in our nation’s history by using our political capital to pursue a radical social agenda that would end a woman’s right to choose and mandate school prayer,” he said in his announcement speech. But before the primaries even started, Specter was out and had endorsed Dole, the eventual Republican presidential nominee.
Four years later, Specter found himself defending Clinton in an unusual way. During the president’s historic 1999 impeachment trial, Specter refused to vote guilty or not guilty and instead invoked Scottish law by voting “Not proven, therefore not guilty.”
As a young attorney, Specter first made a name for himself working on the Warren Commission, investigating Kennedy’s assassination. He was credited with devising the “single bullet” or “magic bullet” theory, which posited that the same bullet that fatally wounded Kennedy also struck Texas Gov. John Connally. While subsequent inquiries backed up his theory, there remain those who view it skeptically and insist there must have been more than one shooter.