"I think he's a reasonable man. We need more sensible people in Washington."
-- Lewisburg resident Judy Marvin after a visit by then Senator Arlen Specter to Susquehanna University in 2007.
Former U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, who died Sunday at the age of 82, was always willing to break from the pack if he believed it was needed.
This courage earned him a reputation as a fearless moderate and a thoughtful leader.
It eventually cost him his place in the Senate.
For most of his 30 years as Pennsylvania's longest-serving U.S. senator, Specter was a Republican, though often at odds with the GOP leadership.
His breaks with his party were hardly a surprise: He had begun his political career as a Democrat and ended it as one, too. Specter abandoned a Republican Party that he felt had become too beholden to conservative extremists. Democrats in Pennsylvania were unwilling to embrace Specter as their standard-bearer, after he had represented the face of moderate Republicanism for a generation. He lost in a Democratic primary to a Joe Sestak, who then lost in the general election to proudly conservative Republican Pat Toomey.
In the limelight provided by decades of public service, Specter played a central role in some of the landmark political moments of the latter half of the 20th Century. He was the originator of the single-bullet theory allegedly explaining the circumstances of President John F. Kennedy's assassination.
He drew the lasting ire of conservatives by helping end the Supreme Court hopes of former federal appeals Judge Robert H. Bork and the anger of women over his aggressive questioning of Anita Hill, a law professor who had accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. He even mounted a short-lived run for president in 1995 on a platform that warned his fellow Republicans of the "intolerant right."
When you think for yourself, you risk coming to the conclusion that friends and allies are wrong. It is a politically dangerous trait that might be best described as courage.
We don't see it often enough in elected officials.
Specter was ushered into retirement by a change in tone in Washington that made it difficult to survive while trying to foster bipartisanship.
A new generation of politicians who lead, as Specter did, by thinking for themselves, rather than marching in lock-step to well-established partisan talking points, may be just what this nation needs.