WASHINGTON -- Sen. Ted Stevens ended his four-decade congressional career Thursday, ushered out by his Senate colleagues with a dignity not shown by jurors in his corruption trial or by the voters in Alaska who declined to return him to Washington for an eighth term.
His colleagues in the Senate offered a 90-minute tribute to the outgoing Republican senator, whose mark on Alaska predates statehood but whose imprint on the Senate is immense.
Few made mention of his conviction or loss in the elections, referring obliquely -- but regretfully -- to Stevens' setbacks during the tribute. Their remarks came one day after Stevens conceded his Senate race to Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, the first Democrat elected to federal office in Alaska since 1974.
His colleagues described Stevens, 85, as a man whose history is intertwined with that of the state of Alaska. Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in Senate history, has served as a senator since 1968. He chaired the powerful Appropriations Committee, and for two decades, oversaw U.S. military spending. A legendary appropriator, he is best known for the billions of dollars in federal money he brought home to Alaska.
"When I think of the good things, the positive things that have come to Alaska in the past 50 years, I see the face, I see the hands of Ted Stevens in so many of them," said his fellow Alaskan, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
"I think it is safe to say, without any fear of contradiction, that no senator in the history of the United States has ever done more for his state than Sen. Ted Stevens," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate minority leader. "Alaska would not be what it is today were it not for him."
Helping achieve Alaska's potential as it transformed from an impoverished U.S. territory to a rich oil-producing state was his "life's work," Stevens said.
"Where there was nothing but tundra and forest, today there are now airports, roads, ports, water and sewer systems, hospitals, clinics, communications networks, research labs and much, much more," he said. "Mr. President, Alaska was not 'Seward's Folly.' "
Republican senators trickled into the Senate chambers just before Stevens began speaking at 11 a.m. Most of his Republican Senate colleagues sat in on portions of the tribute, but only a small group of Democratic senators attended: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, and Stevens' closest friend in the Senate, Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.
"May all the roads that you have built, Ted, rise up to meet you," said Byrd in a variation of the Irish proverb. Byrd, 91, whose age has made him prone to outbursts on the Senate floor, shouted out "Amen, Amen!" while Stevens' friend, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, spoke.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, described the close across-the-aisle friendship his own wife and Stevens' wife have. Sometimes, Lieberman said, people forget that senators are "normal people" with ordinary homes and lives in Washington.
During the tribute, Stevens' wife, Catherine, and his daughter Beth sat in the front row of the upper gallery of the Senate, surrounded by nearly 100 friends and staffers. Dozens more crowded in the seats lining the Senate chambers.
As Stevens concluded his remarks, many in the Senate gallery and all of the senators and aides on the floor of the Senate offered a standing ovation. Many of his staffers and friends walked out of the Senate chambers with red-rimmed eyes, dabbing at their tears.
While they applauded, Stevens sat. Then he stood, shaking hands with the longest-serving U.S. senator in history, Byrd, and the top two leaders of the Senate, Reid and McConnell. Finally, Stevens embraced Inouye, a man he called "his brother" during his speech.
"The Bible tells us, the Old Testament, two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor, for if they fall, one will lift up his fellow," said Reid, the Senate majority leader, referring to the friendship between the two men from the 49th and 50th states.
Reid made no mention of how he had publicly called on Stevens to step down after his conviction and had warned him that were he to return to another term in the Senate, his felon status would prompt a move by his fellow senators to expel him from their midst.
Inouye acknowledged that the Alaska senator's recent history has been "heartbreaking." But that has done nothing to diminish their affection for one another, said Inouye, who testified as a character witness at Stevens' trial.
"I thank you for your four decades of friendship," Inouye told Stevens.
'I YIELD THE FLOOR ... '
As his colleagues in the Senate paid tribute, Stevens sat comfortably in one of the chamber's sumptuous leather chairs, resting with an ease he lacked during the five weeks this fall when he faced a federal jury on corruption charges. There, he appeared shrunken and diminished, hidden by an oversized table in the middle of the federal courtroom.
But in the Senate on his final day, Stevens' words and actions were evocative of his time as a lion of the chamber. He appeared humble yet fully conscious of his place in the history of his state and his nation, and he told his fellow senators that he continues to marvel at his rise from hardscrabble origins in Depression-era Indiana and California to his 1968 appointment to the Senate.
"I really must pinch myself to fully understand that I'm privileged to speak on the floor of the United States Senate," Stevens said. "Coming from the boyhood that I had, I could never even have dreamed to be here today."
Stevens, who was convicted Oct. 27 on seven counts of failing to disclose gifts and hundreds of dollars in home renovations from a powerful political contributor, had just a week to campaign for re-election. He lost his re-election bid Tuesday in the final ballot count and says he will return to Alaska.
He made just one mention of his conviction during his farewell remarks, saying he doesn't look back much but hopes that his appeals will clear him one day of the corruption conviction.
"I still see the day when I can remove the cloud that currently surrounds me," he said on the floor of the Senate. He did not say whether he would seek a pardon from President George W. Bush.
Yet Stevens never once sounded a bitter note. He thanked his family, his friends, his fellow senators and, mostly, the people of Alaska.
"When Alaska needed a strong voice to speak up for its interests, I did my part to the best of my ability," he said.
And if home is where the heart is, Stevens said, "I have two homes. One is right here in this chamber and the other is my beloved state of Alaska. I must leave one to return to the other."
Stevens sounded one final defiant note, reminiscent of the man who donned an "Incredible Hulk" necktie whenever he needed to fight the biggest battles in Washington for Alaska. His motto, he reminded his colleagues, always was "to hell with politics -- just do what is right for Alaska. And I tried every day to live up to those words."
Then, Stevens uttered his final words: "I yield the floor for the last time," he said.
As he exited the blue, gold and varnished grandeur of the Senate chamber, reporters and photographers surrounded Stevens for one final round of questions. "I don't want to puddle up here in front of God and everyone," he said, fighting back tears.
Accompanied by his wife, daughter and a small entourage of friends and employees, he walked down the marble stairs and away from the Senate.