Stevens' devotion to aviation safety ends in sad irony

Michael Carey

Among his many missions as a senator, Ted Stevens undertook to make Alaska aviation safer. He couldn't make it safe enough. The crash near Dillingham proves that. But as an old pilot who had flown in war time, he knew and accepted the dangers of flying in Bush Alaska.

Stevens also may have known that when a group of prominent Alaskans was asked to name the 100 greatest aviators in Alaska history, more than half the people on their list had been killed flying. Alaska is littered with aircraft wreckage. The names of the dead are affixed to our air fields -- Merrill, Eielson, for example. Nobody anticipated that when Anchorage International Airport was named for Ted Stevens he would be claimed by a crash.

Most of us thought the 1978 Anchorage crash that killed his first wife, Ann, was more than enough aviation tragedy for one family.

Ted Stevens survived that crash.

And he outlived all but a few of his peers, the men and women of territorial Alaska, especially Fairbanks where he got his start in 1953 as the district attorney.

Legend has it that he wore a pistol on each hip during gambling raids.

Legend has it that if you went to the notorious Raymond Wright's Southside nightclub at 5 in the morning you could see Ray and Ted huddling over drinks -- after they finished washing the glasses from the night before. Former marshal Frank Wirth, who worked with Ted, heartily endorsed this approach to law enforcement: "If you want to know what the crooks are doing, ask a crook."

Legend also has it that Ted was so hot-tempered at trial that judges, juries and opposing counsel expected him to go off like the famous geyser at Yellowstone.

I do know as a matter of fact, not legend, that Ted and the leader of the local defense bar, Warren Taylor, despised one another, and when Warren baited Ted by daring him to take the witness stand during a 1954 white slavery trial, Ted bit, only to be asked, "Did you know that you were lying when you said...?" Warren never finished the question. Old Faithful erupted.

People Outside had a tough time understanding Ted Stevens the senator. They saw him either as the master chef of pork dishes cooked up for Alaskans or a crooked old pol who beat a jail sentence on a technicality.

The truth is: Ted Stevens was the most influential Alaskan in our history. His fingerprints are everywhere -- on resource policy, land policy, Native policy, health care policy and on the hundreds of small favors he did for individual constituents.

In a sense, Ted was lucky: He became a senator during an era when the federal mission was expanding, the federal treasury growing. Dollars were plentiful.

Theodore Fulton Stevens was not a reformer. He accepted the world as he found it. If he was a do gooder, it was through the appropriations process: Send Alaskans money, let them do good.

The world was transactional for Ted. You help me, I'll help you. During the 40 years he served in the Senate, the transaction with Alaskans continued unabated, unabashed. He helped us through legislation and appropriations; we helped him by bestowing our votes on him every election day.

Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at