Stevens made history with tenacious style

August 10, 2010 

Ted Stevens died Monday the way Alaskans die, in a plane crash in the wilds of the state he devoted his life to.

At 86, he was the last giant of statehood and a major architect of the Alaska that emerged from its territorial history.

A U.S. senator for 40 years until his defeat in 2008, Stevens and four others were apparently killed Monday afternoon when a de Havilland Otter, owned by Alaska telecommunications company GCI, slammed into a hill north of Dillingham in bad weather. The group, which included several former Stevens aides and a GCI executive with her daughter, was headed for a fishing lodge owned by GCI. Stevens was a avid fisherman and a regular patron of exclusive fishing lodges in some of the remotest parts of Alaska.

The de Havilland pilot and four passengers died. Four passengers survived.

It was Stevens' second aircraft tragedy. In 1978, already a senator for 10 years, he narrowly survived a 1978 Learjet crash at Anchorage's international airport, now named for him. His first wife, Ann, and four others died. Stevens, one of two survivors, was seriously injured, raising questions about whether he would be able to continue in office. But he recovered, became a physical fitness buff and served Alaska in the Senate for 30 more years. He married again, to attorney Catherine Bittner, and the couple had a daughter, Lily.

He went on to write laws, fund programs and send home federal money for the buildings, bridges, boats, roads, airports, hospitals and military bases that moved Alaska from the frontier to the mainstream. His constituents called him Uncle Ted and Senator for Life. Even his enemies welcomed his largesse, dished out in federal appropriations that numbered in the tens of thousands and affected almost every Alaskan's life.

"He liked doing what he did, and he was good at it," said Jack Roderick, a former law partner and long-time friend.

ALASKA FIRST

Outsiders accused him of putting Alaska interests ahead of the nation's. Alaska voters thanked him for doing so by returning him to office for decade after decade by huge margins, wavering only two years ago when a federal jury in Washington, D.C., found him guilty on seven counts of taking expensive gifts from a well-known political powerbroker and not reporting them.

He was at the time the longest serving Republican in Senate history, with a reputation as a hard worker who could reach across the aisle when needed and liked to flaunt his famous temper by sporting an Incredible Hulk tie.

In 2008, with the convictions hanging over his head, Stevens lost his seat by a small margin to Democrat Mark Begich. By some accounts bitter at those he felt had turned on him, ungrateful for what he had done over the years, he faded from public life for a while.

"I think he had lost faith in our judicial system for a period of time, and it was very hard for a man who had helped shaped the law, who had built the laws," said an obviously distraught Sen. Lisa Murkowski Tuesday. Murkowski was appointed in 2002, a very junior Alaska senator to the very senior Stevens. She remembered him as a kind and patient mentor.

"And I think he felt abandoned by some in the Senate. You find out who your real friends are when there are difficulties. I think that hurt Ted."

In April 2009, Stevens' convictions were thrown out because of prosecutorial misconduct and his status as a felon erased. Last fall he began to speak again in public to friendly audiences on his favorite topic, resource development, but he was done with politics, friends said.

CHILDHOOD AND STATEHOOD

"A battler" is what Roderick calls Stevens. "It came from his childhood. He had to be a battler."

The son of Chicago parents who divorced when he was 6, Theodore Fulton Stevens grew up in Depression-era Indianapolis. He helped support his blind father and grandparents until moving in his teens to live with an aunt in California. In interviews, Stevens called this his "beach bum" period, citing a $40 surf board and a gold 1931 Pontiac convertible as his most prized possessions.

During World War II he joined the Army Air Corps and piloted transport planes over the Himalayas. Decorated for his service, he left the military and graduated from UCLA, then Harvard Law School. A job with a Washington, D.C., law firm that represented the Usibelli coal mine introduced him to Alaska. He soon moved to Fairbanks, where he became a territorial prosecutor and established a legendary persona he later denied was real, including stories he used to strap on two guns to lead federal gambling raids.

He returned to Washington as a federal lawyer in 1956 and rose in the Eisenhower administration to chief counsel in the Interior Department. From there, he pushed statehood for Alaska against Republican opposition, including the president and his secretary of the interior. It was the Cold War era. Alternatives to statehood by the anti-statehood people included dividing the territory, making just the bigger cities a state and leaving the rest to be abandoned, if necessary, should Russia attack the United States from the Far East. Eisenhower, a former general, believed the territory was too big and empty to be successfully defended.

Stevens got promoted to Interior's top legal job when a new secretary of the interior asked Fairbanks newspaper publisher C.W. Snedden to recommend someone interested in working on the statehood issue, according to historian Claus Naske.

"He was supposed to be objective" in the new post, said history professor Steve Haycox. "What he did was to use his desk to be a very strong and effective advocate for statehood, going so far even as to gather information about opponents of Alaska statehood in the Congress that could be used if they chose to use it by people who wanted to blunt the effectiveness of opponents."

Stevens told an interviewer in 1977 that he was willing to bend the rules and manipulate the media to convince whoever needed convincing that Alaska had to become a state.

Eisenhower signed the statehood act, and Alaska became a state in 1959.

DIVING INTO POLITICS

Stevens returned to Alaska in 1961 with his wife, Ann, and their five children after the Democratic Kennedy administration took over. He practiced law in Anchorage with Roderick and now Senior U.S. District Court Judge Russel Holland. He represented oil companies seeking to drill here and the two Anchorage newspapers, the Times and the Daily News.

He ran for the U.S. Senate in 1962 and lost to Ernest Gruening. He then shifted his focus to the state Legislature, where he won a House seat in 1964 and 1966. In 1968 he ran for Gruening's seat again, but lost the Republican primary to banker Elmer Rasmuson, who lost the general election to Democrat Mike Gravel.

A few months later, Alaska senior Sen. Bob Bartlett died. Gov. Wally Hickel stunned -- and angered -- fellow Republicans by appointing Stevens, who had little support, instead of giving the seat to Rasmuson. Hickel later explained he wanted the job to go to a younger person who could build up the seniority that later proved so helpful to a sparsely populated state with little political clout. Stevens plunged immediately into tangled controversies -- the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and creation of a system of Native corporations.

BUILDING A LEGACY

From the start, Stevens was pro-development, believing that Alaska's natural resources needed to be both merchandised and protected, especially fishing. As a result, "Alaska has the best managed fish system in the U.S., one of the three best in the world," said Ed Rasmuson, who has served on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. "It's his lasting legacy."

In fact, Stevens largely shaped the nation's commercial fishing industry. He was a prime author of the key federal law governing fisheries management and safety: the Magnuson-Stevens Act. He is the main reason U.S. ships, not foreign fleets, now have exclusive rights to Alaska's biggest fishery -- Bering Sea pollock. He helped determine who could catch Alaska crab, halibut and black cod. To channel more money to cash-starved rural Alaska, he crafted laws that give some of the Bering Sea's seafood bounty -- worth tens of millions of dollars a year -- to Western Alaska villages.

Much of Stevens' appropriation efforts were aimed at rural Alaska. Gene Peltola, president of the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp., tells the story of Stevens and a group of village leaders touring a half-dozen communities along the Kuskokwim River in 1997. At the end of the tour, Stevens said dejectedly that, even from his position on the Senate Appropriations Committee, he'd never be able to come up with enough money to deal with the dreadful conditions he had seen that day, Peltola said.

"How does the Appalachian Commission work?" someone asked, meaning a federal-state agency that fights poverty in that eastern mountain region. "The senator's eyes lit up," said Peltola. Thus was born the Denali Commission, which has funded among other projects 35 village health clinics since 1998, he said.

The Denali Commission has funneled a total of $985 million to rural Alaska, according to commission co-chair Joel Neimeyer.

"Rural Alaskans as a whole have a vastly improved quality of life specifically because of Ted Stevens," Peltola said Tuesday.

Less publicized was the Republican senator's support of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Public Broadcasting Commission, said Diane Kaplan, president of the Rasmuson Foundation of Alaska. "Other politicians talked about supporting them, but when it came to do-or-die, Sen. Stevens went to the mat for them."

THE FBI CASE

On these and a hundred other fronts, Stevens engaged on issues large and small, local, statewide and national, accumulating the seniority Hickel had envisioned, amassing power and allies over the years until, elected and re-elected six times spanning four decades, he aged into an imposing, respected figure who could look forward to eventual honorable retirement.

Then federal prosecutors closed in on Bill Allen, the multi-millionaire owner of Veco Inc., an oil field services company, for bribing public officials. Allen and Stevens were close friends and political allies, but that didn't stop Allen from offering the FBI evidence against Stevens, who had accepted a series of expensive gifts from Allen and failed to report them.

Stevens was indicted in July 2008 on seven counts. Efforts to move his trial from D.C. to Alaska failed, and a jury there convicted him in October 2008 on all charges -- a week before the election.

Friends said his fall from grace was hard on him, but the Obama administration's decision to erase the convictions because prosecutors failed to provide exculpatory evidence to Steven's lawyers, as is legally required, noticeably buoyed him. In the months before his death, Stevens seemed to have bounced back, Haycox said, appearing at a number of campaign fundraisers and at the funeral of Wally Hickel and a memorial for Diana Tillion.

The Ted Stevens who boarded the float plane to go fishing was looking forward to an active life, advising and consulting on resources issues, said Roderick. "He had no bitterness. He talked about spending half his time in Washington, because that's where Catherine worked, and half his time in Alaska."

Rasmuson agreed. "He had a new outlook, not political. He was content with life, enjoying the company of his friends, feted by organizations. The Senate, politics, was behind him."


Daily News writers Bill White and Tom Kizzia contributed to this story.

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