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Our View: Sen. Ted Stevens

Longtime Alaska Senator Ted Stevens.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Ted Stevens poses in football gear in 1941 at Redondo Union High School.
Photo courtesy Ted Stevens

You'll find his legacy in the lives of Alaskans across the state. Uncle Ted. That's how Alaskans came to know Sen. Ted Stevens. Uncle Ted, we called him, in tones both familiar and reverential. Familiar, because Ted Stevens came of political age in Alaska, so Alaskans knew him. Reverential, because Ted Stevens became an economic force in Alaska second only to the oil industry.

Look in the pages of today's Daily News and online, and you'll read and see the story of a man who made his mark even before he became Uncle Ted. He flew "over the hump" with the Army Air Forces, supplying forces in China during World War II. He was a prosecutor in Fairbanks, fought for Alaska statehood, served in the state Legislature, ran hard and lost twice for statewide office.

In his mid-40s, he'd already had life enough for a good biography when Gov. Wally Hickel appointed him to replace Sen. Bob Bartlett, who died in office in 1968. The man who had lost two statewide races wouldn't lose another -- wouldn't even be seriously challenged -- for 40 years.

During those 40 years he fought relentlessly for his vision of Alaska. How relentlessly? History, his colleagues and his famous Hulk necktie testify to his determination.

Ted Stevens was tough. Look at the photograph of the football player at Redondo Union High School in 1941. There probably are tens of thousands of such photos in dresser drawers, scrapbooks and cell phones all across America. Rugged pose, fierce eye for the camera. With Stevens, you get the sense it's no pose. Line up opposite this young man, and you better be ready.

Stevens came of that generation that grew up with the Depression and World War II. Those folks tended to live without illusions, and they took toughness as a given to get on in the world. Stevens was tough enough to hold his own and then some in the corridors of power. He didn't win every battle. He compromised over Alaska lands legislation, for example. He was a Republican stalwart but no ideologue. He knew how to deal and how to work across the aisle. As his clout and seniority grew, so did his ability to steer what eventually counted in the billions of federal dollars to Alaska.

Federal money was lifeblood for a growing Alaska, and Uncle Ted kept it flowing. But he saw more than commerce. He saw education, research, Alaska fisheries and aviation safety. One of his enduring accomplishments widely recognized beyond Alaska's borders is the 200-mile economic zone off America's coasts for sustainable fisheries management, work he did with Sen. Warren Magnuson of Washington.

Stevens had his critics, and he had his flaws. Foes rolled their eyes at his bursts of temper. Alaskans tended to smile; many knew Stevens lost his temper with a purpose, even if the act got a little old.

More serious was an arrogance and sense of entitlement that led Stevens to an association with Bill Allen and a federal indictment and conviction in 2008 in a case involving Allen's remodeling of Stevens' Girdwood home. The conviction didn't stand; the U.S. attorney general dropped the case due to prosecutors' misconduct. But the damage to Stevens' reputation was done, and so was his political career.

What was described as a tragic end to a brilliant career may with time become more a tragic footnote. Yes, Stevens' sense of entitlement trumped his judgment -- a sin made easier by the sometimes worshipful treatment Stevens got on the home front. He was named -- by the Alaska Legislature, among others -- "Alaskan of the Century." His name adorns Anchorage International Airport. Heady stuff, even for a battle-hardened old pilot.

His power to deliver for Alaska, particularly on the Senate Appropriations Committee, was so great that during his last two terms in office his constituents would wonder what Alaska was going to do when he either retired or died.

We know one answer. We'll continue to benefit by what he did here for decades.

Look just about anywhere in Alaska, from Point Hope to Ketchikan, and Ted Stevens will have had some role in both public and private lives. Some examples are obvious -- the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward; the Ted and Catherine Ann Stevens Challenger Learning Center in Kenai; the Denali Commission's village health clinics; clean water, fuel tank and sewer projects throughout Bush Alaska; federal buildings in Anchorage; and the expansion of the military's presence throughout Alaska.

Other examples are personal -- those of constituents that Stevens helped, people he mentored, kindnesses he showed.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, the good that Ted Stevens did won't be interred with his bones. The good that Ted Stevens did will be with Alaskans for a long time to come.