My turn: Alaska is a better place because of Sen. Stevens

Posted: Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I don't spend a lot of time thinking or writing about folks convicted of felonies, but I think the case of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens deserves a comment or two.

I knew him. Not personally, of course, but during nearly 20 years in Alaska journalism I had occasion to follow his career and to interview him a time or three.

I also know that he gave every ounce of his energy for Alaska, and that, to my knowledge, he is no more crooked than most of the folks in Congress.

Stevens has a reputation for having a temper. As someone who had been yelled at by everyone in the Alaska delegation over the years, I can tell you that orneriness was not unique to him.

It's not that I like getting yelled at; it's just that, in Alaska at least, big shots feel obliged to embellish their points with a few exclamation marks.

I never paid much attention to them anyway.

One thing the press used to illustrate the juice Stevens had in the Senate was the "bridge to nowhere." The press acted as though the idea of connecting the city of Ketchikan to its airport was some far-out idea that no one wanted.

Far from it. I remember when I was editor of the weekly newspaper in nearby Wrangell in 1975, the folks in Ketchikan were talking about a bridge to the airport to replace the ferry.

But some folks in the press don't feel the need to be fair or accurate these days.

The press also has lost the edge on completeness. I read one of those "everything you ever wanted to know about Ted Stevens" articles last summer and was astounded at what was left out.

Like the time he was nearly killed in a plane wreck that did kill his wife.

That happened in 1979, as I recall, and was one of the saddest tragedies in Alaska history. Stevens had spoken at a Juneau meeting about the prospects for reaching a compromise on a proposal to lock up much of Alaska as national parks and preserves of one sort or another. After the meeting, he caught a ride on a private plane. As it was landing in Anchorage, a gust of wind flipped the plane. Stevens survived, barely, but his wife Anne died.

He eventually went on to remarry, but I don't know if I'd ever be the same either, after a harrowing experience like that.

Other parts of the Stevens story have gone unmentioned, too. Stevens saw to it that the federal government kept its promises to Native Alaskans. And that fisheries were managed in a way that took Alaska's interests into account. And the list goes on.

Maybe no one gives a darn. Maybe folks figure he's just another grouchy old politician in it for himself.

But I really don't think that tag fits on Stevens. Grouchy? Yes. Old? At 84, I think even he'd agree with that. But I believe that, in his decades of representing Alaska in the Senate, he wasn't in it for himself. In the battles to assert Alaska's interests in a crowd of senators who couldn't care less about the 49th state, Stevens did a pretty darn good job.

Yep, he was convicted of failing to fill out paperwork properly. And yep, he's appealing it. I don't know how that will work out for him.

But I do know that Alaska is a better place because of Stevens.

• Carl Sampson was managing editor of the Juneau Empire from 1978 to 1992. He now lives in Stayton, Ore., and edits a newspaper based in Salem, Ore.



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