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Ted Stevens' 40-year itch

For decades, Alaska's 'senator for life' answered to no one. Now, he may face jail -- and defeat.

October 29, 2008|Michael Carey | Michael Carey is a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News and the host of "Anchorage Edition," a weekly public-affairs program produced by Alaska Public Television Inc.

Ted Stevens has had remarkable energy and remarkable ambition, and that has brought him remarkable success. First as a federal prosecutor in Fairbanks, my hometown, where he made war on a resilient and well-entrenched criminal element. Then as an indispensable aide to President Eisenhower's secretary of the Interior, Fred Seaton, with whom he teamed up to fight for statehood for Alaska. Later as a member of the Alaska Legislature, where he became the Republican leader in the 1960s. Finally, as a U.S. senator who, after he was appointed in 1968, went on to be elected and served for 40 years -- longer than any Republican in American history.

On Monday, a Washington jury convicted him of seven counts of lying on his financial disclosure forms.

Stevens has probably done more to shape contemporary Alaska than any other single Alaskan. His fingerprints are everywhere in the 49th state. Using the federal budget, especially earmarks, he has delivered billions of dollars to Alaska for roads, bridges, airports, hospitals and clinics -- a list of projects so long, no one can recite it anymore. The money has a generic name: "Stevens money."

Alaskans in turn have showered Stevens with honors and encomiums, not to mention their votes. Stevens has not had a serious opponent since the early '70s -- a circumstance that won him the title "senator for life."

It was as "senator for life" that Stevens ran afoul of the law. After decades in Congress, Stevens answered to no one -- not his constituents, not the media, not his critics in Alaska and Congress. To those who disagreed with his policies and politics, his answer was more or less, "What are you going to do about it?" The answer usually was nothing.

In a democracy, no one should have the power Stevens accumulated. The best word to describe it is imperial. Not that he won every fight. He has been battling environmentalists over opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling for more than 25 years without success.

When Stevens' colleague, Sen. John Warner of Virginia, announced his retirement in 2007, Warner quoted Thomas Jefferson: "There is a fullness of time when men should go, and not occupy too long the ground on which others have the right to advance." Stevens has no use for Jefferson's wisdom.

There is no evidence Stevens ever expected to retire from the Senate. He once told me that if a man took care of himself, he could live to be 120 years old. He apparently expected to do that -- using his seniority on the Appropriations Committee to shovel dollars to his grateful constituents.

With the passage of time, Stevens developed another characteristic that brought him down: The inability to separate his personal life from his professional life. Prosecutors showed that Stevens and his wife, Catherine, turned his professional staff into serfs who walked the dog, fed the cat, mowed the lawn, wrapped Christmas presents, returned overdue videos.

Stevens also allowed Bill Allen, owner of a now-defunct Anchorage oil-field company, to use his home near Anchorage as pretty much a crash pad while Stevens was away in Washington. Between 1995 and 2005, executives at Allen's company raised more campaign contributions than anyone else for Stevens. During the trial, Stevens, famous for his intimidating temper, suggested that he couldn't keep Allen and his gifts, especially new furniture, out of his home. The jury did not believe him.

Stevens, who will be 85 on Nov. 18, now could be headed for prison. But before that, he could be headed back to the Senate. He's the GOP candidate in Tuesday's election and has been locked in a tight race with the Democratic candidate, Mayor Mark Begich of Anchorage.

The Alaska Republican Party has rallied behind Stevens, warning that a Begich victory could damage Alaska by emboldening environmentalists allied with the Democrats. Callers on talk radio told stories about their personal relationships with Ted. And pollsters are attempting to obtain a broader view of the voters, many of whom are confused by John McCain and Sarah Palin, who have called on Stevens to step down.

"I was born with an itch to be in political office," Stevens told a newspaperman in 1967. It's an itch he has never stopped scratching, an itch he continues to feel even after conviction on federal corruption charges.

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