The Senator From Alaska
Stevens, the longest serving Republican senator in the country’s history, died Monday night in a back country plane crash in Alaska, the state he represented in the Senate for 40 years. Stevens was 86 and scandal and controversy and temper aside he deserves to be remembered as one of the most influential senators of the second half of the 20th Century.
I can’t say I really knew the man, but did interview him on two occasions and both were memorable. In 1980, Republicans captured control of the Senate for the first time in memory in the election that saw a slew of western senators, Stevens included, elevated to committee chairmanships. Stevens went on to run the Appropriations and Commerce Committees with a loud voice and a fast gavel and, of course, with a slab of bacon for the Last Frontier always first in his mind.
I was producing public television programs in 1980 and some how was able to convince the boss to send me and a photographer (current Idaho Public Television General Manager Peter Morrill) to Washington to do an hour-long special on the newly powerful GOP. Stevens graciously sat for an interview and gave the yokels from Idaho plenty of his time.
Years later I was working on a piece for Montana Magazine on the late, great Montana Senator and Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. I’d been told by a former Mansfield aide that I really needed to get to Stevens who, the aide assured me, would tell me a great story about his relationship with the famous Montanan.
Thanks for my old boss, Cecil Andrus, who had clashed many a time with Stevens over Alaska issues, but who nevertheless maintained a healthy respect for the senator, which Stevens reciprocated, I was able to connect with Stevens on the phone.
He told me a remarkable story of how, as a freshman senator, Mansfield has shown him an unprecedented degree of respect and courtesy and imbued Stevens with the notion that every single member of the Senate has a right to be taken seriously on every single issue. He ended by saying, in words I’ll never forget coming from a Republican about a Democrat, “Mike was the best leader the Senate has ever seen.”
Ted Stevens was tough on environmentalists and those who dared to cross him. He was a champion of the earmark back before speaking ill of federal appropriations became a litmus test for every politician. By one count, Stevens had a hand in nearly 1,500 earmarks over his Senate career worth more than $3.4 billion. Like his friend the late Robert Byrd, Stevens came to the Senate to take care of his state and that meant appropriating money for projects back home.
He was, as has been said of lesser men, not always right, but seldom in doubt. Stevens once proclaimed, while chairing the Appropriations Committee, “I’m a mean, miserable S.O.B.”
On another occasion, he said: “I didn’t lose my temper. I know right where it is.”
Ted Stevens was also part of a vanishing breed, a throw back to the Senate of Mansfield and Jackson, Church and Baker, Long and Dole. Theirs was a Senate were, once in a while, serious legislation got considered and past without the incredible partisanship displayed today by both parties.
Much will be made of the fact that Stevens’ death came in a plane crash, the same awful circumstance that claimed his first wife and nearly killed him in 1978. Considering his eventful life, including flying Army Air Force transports over “The Hump” in the Himalayas ferrying supplies from India to China in World War II, it seems like a eerily fateful ending to more than eight decades.
In his Senate farewell, Stevens summed up his career: “To hell with politics, just do what’s right for Alaska.” That’s pretty much how he’ll be remembered, I suspect.
With Byrd’s death earlier this year, we’ve now seen the passing of two old and tough Senate bulls, a type not around any more. They’ll both be remembered for a long time – and should be.