The rise and fall of Sen. Ted Stevens

November 19, 2008 

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, is pursued by members of the media on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2008, after attending a Republican Caucus.

GERALD HERBERT / ASSOCIATED PRESS

For years, Alaskans spoke with trepidation of the day when "Uncle Ted" would leave the U.S. Senate, cutting off the flow of federal "Stevens money" that helped sustain Alaska's economy.

Nobody imagined that when the day finally came, it would be because Alaskans themselves voted their "senator for life" out of the Senate.

In the end, though, it was scandal-weary Alaskans who brought the 40-year Senate career of Ted Stevens to an end, voting by a thin margin to replace him with Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat. Begich and the Democrats claimed victory after ballots were counted Tuesday afternoon; Stevens conceded the race Wednesday.

For Alaska's senior senator - under fire from the Justice Department, his Republican colleagues, and many once-loyal constituents - the sad finish to his proud career was obviously painful.

"I wouldn't wish what I'm going through on anyone, (not) my worst enemy," Stevens told reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday, before the decisive absentee votes were counted back in Alaska.

He had hoped for redemption on Election Day, which came one week after a Washington jury found him guilty of seven felony counts of hiding gifts on his federal disclosure forms. It had been his idea to boldly push for a quick trial, gambling that an acquittal before the election would propel him to a seventh term.

Stevens didn't get the acquittal, but he nearly won anyway.

Now he is free to depart without a humiliating vote on expulsion in the Senate, consoled by the big turnout on his behalf. Stevens shocked the pollsters on election night, drawing on a deep well of loyalty from Alaskans to mount a small lead before early and absentee ballots were counted.

Stevens, of course, had hoped to do even better: to sweep the table with victory at the polls and exoneration from an appeals court. He continues to assert that he was wrongly targeted by prosecutors and will win his appeal.

If Alaska's voters didn't share that stubborn confidence, many did say his criminal lapses seemed slight when weighed against his decades of service to the state.

Even for some who voted against him, the epithet "convicted felon" seems far too mean a way to remember the most important politician in Alaska history.

SHAPED MODERN ALASKA

For newer Alaska voters, Stevens is best known for sending billions of federal dollars home to build military bases, bridges and village water systems. That was the role highlighted this election year by the national press, who paired the unapologetic pork-barreler with critics who said he put the interests of Alaska ahead of the country.

Stevens' reputation as the master of congressional earmarks also put him at odds with the "Country First" vice-presidential pitch of Alaska's rising Republican star, Gov. Sarah Palin.

But for Alaskans with longer memories - some of whom rallied to the senator's side in the last week of his campaign - Stevens was the hard-working politician who wrote the laws shaping modern Alaska.

He pushed an Alaska Native land claims act through Congress, standing up to opposition back home, and repeatedly found ways to bail out the Native corporations when they got in trouble. Guided by a pro-development philosophy, he shepherded the Trans-Alaska Pipeline past all obstacles, played the compromiser's role to create new national parks and refuges, and rewrote fisheries laws to bring more control and protection to the state.

Much of that work came in the first ferocious decade of his Senate career, when Stevens was flying back to Alaska on weekends with his watch set on D.C. time, eating and sleeping on a congressional schedule.

And even before that, it was Stevens, a former Fairbanks U.S. attorney elevated to a top spot in the Interior Department, who led the push inside the Eisenhower administration to make the Alaska territory a state.

APPOINTED BY HICKEL

Stevens fought for his causes with a tenacity born in a tough childhood. His parents divorced in Chicago when he was six, in the midst of the 1929 stock market crash. He helped support his blind father and his grandparents in Indianapolis until his teens, then moved in with an aunt in Southern California. He kept a memento of those sunny teen-age years in his Senate office: a polished wooden surfboard bought in 1940, when he was cruising the coast in his nine-year-old gold Pontiac convertible to surf the waves of San Onofre.

Stevens joined the Army Air Corps in World War Two. At age 21, he was a pilot flying C-46 transports over the Himalayas to resupply Chinese nationalist troops fighting the Japanese.

He returned a decorated hero to graduate from UCLA and Harvard Law School and took a job with a firm in Washington, D.C., where he encountered Alaska through one of his first clients, the Usibelli coal mine of Healy.

The connection drew Stevens to Fairbanks, where he worked as a lawyer and federal prosecutor before returning to Washington and the Interior Department, first as an Alaska specialist, then as the department's top attorney. In 1961, with Democrats back in power, he returned to the new state, this time to Anchorage, where he practiced law and was elected to the state legislature. He ran twice for U.S. Senate and lost both times.

In 1967, as Republican majority leader in the Alaska House, Stevens steered a bill into law allowing a governor to fill a senatorial vacancy with a candidate of either party. Before that, a new senator had to be from the same party as the old one - and Alaska had two Democratic senators. Stevens later said he had no inkling he would be the first to benefit from the law.

The most powerful politician of the statehood era, Democratic Senator Bob Bartlett, died unexpectedly the next year. The Republican governor, Wally Hickel, skipped past several more prominent choices to name Stevens.

'MEAN, MISERABLE S.O.B.'

From his arrival in the Senate in 1968, Stevens was known as the workhorse in Alaska's delegation. This was especially true in comparison to Democrat Mike Gravel, with whom he clashed loudly, and also to some extent in contrast to Gravel's replacement after 1980, Republican Frank Murkowski.

His intense focus on Alaska issues gave Stevens expertise in budget and defense matters, and he became a respected Senate leader in those fields. By 1977 he had risen to the leadership role of Republican whip in the Senate, and in 1984 he lost a race for majority leader to Bob Dole of Kansas by three votes. He was also considered a contender for Secretary of Defense in 1989 under President George H.W. Bush,. The position went instead to Wyoming congressman Dick Cheney.

In 2003, Stevens was appointed president pro tempore of the Senate - a largely ceremonial position that made him third in the line of succession to the presidency, after the vice-president and the Speaker of the House.

Stevens was no great orator - at times, his ideas would seem to spill out faster than his tongue could deliver them - and he never became a national spokesman for his party. A social moderate and results-oriented compromiser with friends among Democrats, his Republicanism seemed old-school in the stridently partisan 1990s.

He became the appropriations master. As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee starting in 1997, he found ways to send money north with hard-to-find attachments to budget bills. He infuriated budget watchdog groups but argued that Alaska needed to catch up with the rest of the nation. He developed an effective snarl.

"I'm a mean, miserable SOB," he said, introducing himself as appropriations chairman. He became known for a crotchety exterior and a temper that could flash against constituents as well as colleagues. It was something Stevens made light of, with his Incredible Hulk tie and his quip: "I didn't lose my temper. I know right where it is."

In 2000, the Alaska Legislature joined with others in proclaiming Stevens "Alaskan of the Century."

'TRUSTING PEOPLE'

On rare occasions, Stevens spoke about several lines of regret that ran through his career.

One regret was how his intense focus on the public sphere kept him away from his family. These feelings spilled out after the 1978 Lear jet crash at Anchorage International Airport that killed his wife, Ann, and four others - Stevens was one of two survivors. They had five children together, with a sixth child, Lily, born to his second wife, Catherine Bittner.

Another admitted regret was his failure to accumulate personal wealth. After several investments went bad, Ted and Catherine Stevens were forced to sell their house in suburban Maryland in 1986 to pay off debts. Looking ahead to re-election two years later, Stevens said voters should appreciate the sacrifices he'd made for Alaska, because he could be making millions as a lawyer.

Those remarks struck some Alaska voters as arrogant. But by Election Day Stevens won yet another easy victory.

Stevens's finances were rescued by a 1989 bequest from longtime friend Bill Snedden, publisher of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, and later by a big payback in an Anchorage real estate investment. Stevens and his wife eventually bought another house in the D.C. area, but their home base - the Girdwood chalet at the center of his corruption trial - remained decidedly modest.

Returning to Alaska to campaign this year, Stevens raised a third regret in his televised debate: "A habit I got into of trusting people."

It was plainly a reference to Bill Allen, the Veco chairman and oilman who had been the state's most visible peddler of political influence since the 1980s, but whom Stevens considered a personal friend. Allen's unreimbursed work on the Girdwood house, and his subsequent conversations with the FBI, had brought the Justice Department down on Alaska's senior senator for unreported gifts.

The sharp ethical lines of Stevens' early career seemed to blur somewhat in the last decade. As Stevens worked the appropriations levers, questions were raised about trusted former aides who returned as favor-seeking lobbyists, about real estate and fishery deals, and about his son, Ben, who as state Senate president had a Veco contract that Allen says was all about delivering votes in Juneau.

For all that, Stevens was the subject of warm praise and standing ovations on April 12, 2007, when the Senate stopped work to commemorate his service of 13,990 days - the longest-serving Republican in U.S. history.

Speeches in Stevens' honor were made on the floor by Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Democratic majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada - both of whom condemned Stevens in the last days of this year's campaign.

"What you all need to appreciate," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told her colleagues that day, "is that so much of the history of Ted Stevens is the history of Alaska."

Three months later, the FBI raided Stevens' Girdwood chalet, and an era of Alaska history began drawing to a close.

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