Theodore F. Stevens: Senator served Alaska to the end

Posted: Friday, August 13, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

Six years ago, on a warm July evening in a northwest Washington, D.C. neighborhood, about 160 people gathered in a backyard to raise money for Sen. Lisa Murkowski's election. The menu featured Alaska salmon, sizzled on a grill built from trans-Alaska pipeline parts. The cook was Sen. Ted Stevens.

Scurrying through the crowd of lobbyists, staff members, donors and other assorted invitees, his face red from the grill's heat, the 80-year-old Stevens was elbow-deep in two great passions - politics and fish - and loving it.

Denied by the voters in 2008 any further participation in the former, Stevens continued with the latter. So the only good thing about the circumstance that ended his life Monday night was this: He was on a fishing trip to southwestern Alaska with friends when his final moment arrived.

Stevens' death in an airplane crash brings to a close his personal chapter in the story of Alaska, but not his role in Alaska itself. The modern state was shaped by this man as much as any other, and his legacy will continue in perpetuity. And given the height to which he rose in the U.S. Senate, his influence was substantial in the national and international arenas as well.

Stevens was a driven young man who distinguished himself before arriving in Fairbanks in 1953 as the U.S. attorney. Raised in part by his uncle and aunt in Southern California, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps at the apex of World War II. He hoped to fly fighter jets but was assigned to cargo planes in Southeast Asia. Returning home, he earned a law degree from Harvard and went to work in Washington.

Sent by the Justice Department to Alaska, he caught statehood fever and forged a lasting friendship with the former publisher of this newspaper, C.W. "Bill" Snedden. Stevens returned to D.C. and rose to become the Interior department's solicitor shortly after statehood legislation succeeded in 1959.

Then it was back to the new state, where he practiced law and politics in Anchorage. In 1968, then-Gov. Walter Hickel appointed him to the U.S. Senate when E.L. "Bob" Bartlett died in office.

Starting with statehood, Stevens played a part in every piece of federal legislation affecting Alaska during the past 50 years.

From 1997 to 2004, he led the Senate Appropriations Committee, a position from which he steered billions of dollars to Alaska through agencies and creations such as the Denali Commission. He told critics that his earmarks fell within broad budget caps set by Congress, which, he reminded them, has the power of the purse under the U.S. Constitution.

In 1995 and 2005, Stevens nearly captured his Holy Grail - the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain to oil drilling. In '95, a budget veto by President Bill Clinton killed the legislation; in 2005, Stevens' effort to use a defense spending bill collapsed on the Senate floor a few votes short.

Ironically, Stevens was probably best known in recent years to the American public as the senator who described the Internet as a set of "tubes." It was a perfectly accurate analogy, and, had he said "pipes" - the standard industry jargon - the world might not have noticed. Instead, he was mocked by millions watching the 15-second clip on YouTube. Those who actually knew about Stevens' decades of detailed work in communications policy and his personal embrace of Internet technology were stunned by the misportrayal.

Stevens also suffered unjustly in 2008 from charges he had intentionally failed to report gifts. The prosecution's behavior in the case was so bad that the judge vacated the conviction, but not before it cost Stevens the election.

Stevens pursued his vision of Alaska diligently throughout his life. Of course, not all Alaskans shared that vision at all times, and some were suspicious of his motives. But he worked with good intentions, dedication and skill that earned him the respect of people of many political persuasions. He could be irascible but also charming, demanding yet generous and thoughtful. His mind, like the state he served, was a big place where many interests and ideas competed. But always he sought the best for Alaska and its people.



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