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October 16, 2012

Arlen Specter: Many things to many people

— Colleagues reflecting on the weekend death of former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter described him as tenacious, pugnacious, courageous, even combative. But in his 30 years as Pennsylvania’s longest-serving senator, his politics perhaps could best be described as bipartisan.

Specter frequently crossed party lines – both while as a Democrat and as a Republican – to vote his conscious and what he felt was best for the people he served.

Obviously, he wasn’t always popular with his own party at the time.

“We will never forget his compassion and commitment to Pennsylvania and to the working people of Pennsylvania,” said Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Rick Bloomingdale. “His courage and leadership in standing up for his constituents has helped improve the lives of millions of workers.”

Bloomingdale added that Specter “put the interests and well-being of working families above all other considerations, even his own political career.”

That he did.

He also never forgot Johnstown, whether on the campaign trail or during cross-state trips while on Senate recess. We at The Tribune-Democrat got to know him as intelligent, articulate and as a straight-shooter – a man who   wouldn’t back away from a tough question, although we didn’t always agree with him.

“You folks really did your homework,” he commented on one stop in which he had agreed to an hour-long recorded question-and-answer session that later would be published.

Sometimes he left us with “stories for the ages.” Like the time he stopped here during the noon lunch hour. Editors, reporters and photographers quickly settled in a conference room just in time for the senator to announce the session was on hold for 15 minutes – while he ate a sandwich he had brought with him.

His visits were always preceded the day before with a security inspection by state troopers.

In the moments before his arrival, an aide would show up to check out the conference room, the restroom, and to advise that Specter on his arrival would need coffee – “cream and two sugars please.”

We also laugh remembering the time one aide attended specifically to hold charts while the grizzled senator went about making his points.

Nationwide, Specter will  best be remembered for the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of former federal appeals Judge Robert Bork and for his work in  the Warren Commission hearings into the assassination of President John Kennedy.

Specter, too, will be remembered as witty and caring. And he often mentioned his family and his matches on the squash courts.

The former Philadelphia district attorney was also tough, battling cancer again and again, before finally succumbing on Sunday at age 82.

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