"I was born with an itch to be in political office." So said Ted Stevens in the summer of 1967 as he prepared for a second bid for the United States Senate. It's a itch he has never stopped scratching.
Stevens has been such a dominant, unchallengeable figure for so long that few Alaskans remember him as the young tiger who made war on the state's political establishment -- and lost, then lost again.
For most of the 1960s, Ted Stevens was not a man who had arrived, but a man on the make, frustrated in his quest to reach the Senate.
The quest -- the Alaska segment of it -- began in Fairbanks where Stevens was U.S. attorney from 1953-1956 and continued in Washington, where he was a political appointee near the top of President Eisenhower's Interior Department. When John Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in 1960, Stevens lost his job as department solicitor and returned to Alaska -- Anchorage -- where he entered the practice of law in 1961.
AGAINST A LEGEND
In 1962, Stevens, who had never run for elective office, challenged incumbent Sen. Ernest Gruening, a 75-year-old legend. Gruening had been territorial governor from 1939-1953, a leader in the fight for statehood, and senator after winning a close election over another former governor, Republican Mike Stepovich of Fairbanks, in 1958.
Stevens, 38, was running uphill from the day he filed and ever on the attack. The verbs headline writers used to describe his anti-Gruening speeches include "lambastes," "blisters," "raps" and "charges." It was a rare day in the summer and fall of 1962 when Stevens didn't criticize "the junior senator."
In his announcement speech of April 1962, Stevens said "I believe Alaska has suffered for almost four years because Ernest Gruening was elected in 1958. He is a cantankerous old man. He has delayed many programs for his own selfish objects. He has embittered his own colleague, Alaska's senior Sen. Bob Bartlett, by his back-biting techniques and absolutely insatiable appeals for personal publicity." (Stevens, it should be noted, also championed innovative policy initiatives such as a Peace Corps for Alaska Natives and a branch of the University of Alaska for Southeast Alaska.)
Gruening more or less ignored Stevens, leaving criticism to allies like Anchorage lawyer Wendell Kay, who dismissed Stevens as "Teddy Bear." "Yes, we've got a new little mechanical bear in Alaska politics. You wind this little bear up and it comes at you across the floor with eyes rolling, teeth bared, growling, smoke coming out of its ears. ..."
Gruening clobbered Stevens. Ted received only 41.9 percent of the vote.
After the August election, Stevens returned to what for him was the small time: The practice of law and two terms in the Alaska Legislature where his native intelligence, broad political experience, and restless energy made him a Republican leader and invaluable ally of Gov. Wally Hickel.
In 1968, Stevens sought the Senate again -- Ernest Gruening, now more than 80, again the incumbent. But first he had to win the August Republican primary, which Anchorage banker Elmer Rasmuson had entered. Rasmuson had the Midas touch as a banker but limited skills as campaigner. His banking fortune, however, allowed him to finance himself far better than Stevens, who clearly was frustrated -- check the headlines of the day -- by Rasmuson's wealth and presumption that he, not Stevens, should replace the aged junior senator.
Stevens specifically attacked Rasmuson for surreptitiously using bank employees to staff his campaign and bank funds to pay them, a charge Rasmuson vigorously denied.
Stevens spent much of the summer of 1968 campaigning by road in a Dodge motor home, accompanied by his wife, Ann, and their five children. An unidentified reporter for The Anchorage Times described the Ted Stevens of the summer of 1968 this way.
"Politically, he leans toward the moderate. ... He is dynamic, an excellent speaker and a skilled organizer. He does have a temper and has been known to use it on occasion. But his outgoing personality and his warm-heartedness frequently win people over to his side. He is as friendly and unwaverable as the south wind, and just as dependable."
By "moderate," the reporter meant Stevens was a supporter of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, not Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential nominee of 1964. Stevens also had denounced the John Birch Society more than once.
The election returns were cruel to Ted Stevens. Elmer Rasmuson defeated him handily, setting up a November confrontation between the banker and former Speaker of the State House Mike Gravel, who defeated Gruening in the primary. The general election became complicated for the major party candidates when Gruening stubbornly ran a write-in, but Gravel still won decisively.
By Labor Day 1968, Ted Stevens had every reason to believe he was a political has-been. He had run for the Senate twice -- and been defeated twice. Mike Gravel would not be up for re-election until 1974 and 64-year-old Bob Bartlett, who would be up in 1970, was so popular as to be unbeatable.
Newspaper stories and editorials suggested Stevens might return to the Interior Department in Washington or become a federal judge.
But shortly before Christmas, Bob Bartlett, suffering a bad heart, died in a Cleveland hospital. On Dec. 23, 1968, Gov. Wally Hickel appointed Ted Stevens United States senator for Alaska.
Hickel said he thought Ted Stevens was uniquely qualified for the job. This may be the only time in his long and loud public career that Wally Hickel fell victim to understatement.
Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.