Essay: The End of the Stevens Era

By Joel Southern
Former APRN Washington, DC Correspondent

Photo by Libby Casey, APRN – Washington, DC (click for details)

Over the past four months — since Sen. Ted Stevens’ indictment up through his defeat in the recent elections — I’ve been sitting here on my little perch in rural Denmark trying to sort out my feelings about him and what the end of his long Senate career means for him, for Alaska politics and for the state.

First, I have to say “mea culpa.” I reported on him for nearly 20 years. But I now realize that I should have been more curious and probing after he first started talking about, and showing pictures of, his Girdwood home expansion years ago. At the very least, some diligent reporting early on might have rooted out the favors that VECO chief Bill Allen threw Stevens’ way, and Stevens might have felt more pressure to make sure he got and fully paid all the bills. I know that he believes he acted properly. But the federal district court jury in Washington, D.C. emphatically decided that he did not.

If Stevens indeed has broken the law, he should be held accountable. For years, he has railed at federal agencies for not following laws and has argued they should be held responsible. The same should be true for him if he and his lawyers cannot persuade the federal court system that the guilty verdicts against him are unjust. And I have my doubts that they can.

But that said, I also feel for the guy. I’m sure he has plenty of enemies and critics who are dancing on his political grave right now. But I know that, under his often crotchety crust, there’s a real, thinking, feeling human being. I’ve seen it, and I’ve experienced it first hand. For example, when one of my brothers died of cancer in 1995, Sen. Stevens sent me a handwritten note that mentioned his brother who died of cancer and Stevens’ own prostate cancer diagnosis. He advised me to have my cancer risks assessed and told me it was important to recognize and deal with grief. The words might not have seemed profound to others. But they were very profound to me at that time. He didn’t have to write that note, but he did. And I was grateful.

It’s hard to see Stevens’ 40-year Senate career end the way it has. I know he wouldn’t agree with me but, given the circumstances, I believe his election loss to Democrat Mark Begich was the most merciful way for it to end. Had Stevens won, he seemed destined to crash head-on first with other Republicans who wanted to kick him out of their conference and then with an expulsion vote by the full Senate. Regardless of whether he might be able to have the guilty verdicts thrown out on legal technicalities, the saga he has been through has cost him the fear and respect that helped him do what he was able to do in the Senate. And I doubt he would have regained it if he had been able to stay there.

So what lessons are to be drawn from the end of the Ted Stevens epoch in Alaska politics?

This first one is for those who either are or aspire to be elected officials: Never again should any other Bill Allens out there be allowed so much influence in the political and policy-making process. You should never again put your personal confidences or political souls in the hands of such people. If the Stevens tragedy has not taught you that lesson, you don’t deserve to hold or seek a public office.

Second, it’s probably unwise to allow any other elected official from Alaska to stay in office for 40 years. It’s unlikely to happen anyway because the nature of politics and the nature of the people running for office has changed a lot since 1968. But, for argument’s sake, let’s say it could. I’m not a believer in forced term limits, particularly for states that have small populations and, therefore, small congressional delegations. Lawmakers who are doing a good job and are responsive to their constituents deserve more chances to stay in office, and it does take time for members of Congress to climb up the seniority ladder. But it’s also important to renew the political gene pool from time to time. People who spend three or four decades — or sometimes even shorter periods — in the rarified air of the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives can lose touch with the reality in which the rest of us live.

How much is enough — 12 or 18 or 24 years? I don’t know. That is for Alaska voters to decide. But at the very least, you need to put more “fear of God” in the Congressional delegation when re-election time rolls around. It would mean that you as voters are doing your due diligence in scrutinizing office holders and office seekers. And it would make both incumbents and challengers more attuned to the greatest issues and concerns in the state.

The third lesson I see builds on the previous point. I believe Alaska needs to cultivate a greater number of capable politicians. I know and have met some — and I emphasize, some — pretty sharp Alaska politicians over the years. But I’ve also been left with the impression that the bench is not very deep. If you want more competition in determining who will represent the state in Congress, then every party — Democrat, Republican, whatever — needs to recruit, train and promote more and better candidates.

And despite what many Alaskans might think, “career politician” need not be a pejorative term. When you have someone representing your state in Congress and weighing in on laws and policies that affect the whole nation, they had better darn well now what they’re doing. And popularity alone does not make up for experience and competence.

And finally, with the end of the Stevens era, perhaps it’s time to retire the “rough and tumble” personality type that marked many of the leaders in the pre-statehood and early statehood days. When you look back at Alaska history, there are plenty of characters with rough edges who were allowed a lot of leeway to take care of the Territory’s and the State’s affairs. Ted Stevens used his rough edges and his hot trial lawyer’s temper with great effect during his Senate tenure. But perhaps the state’s interests will now be better served by more measured and moderate tones, like those of Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Senator-elect Begich.

Particularly when it comes to federal spending priorities, Alaska will have to do less angry complaining that it has been left out and more rational explaining about why it should be included in. I think that would be an important signal of political maturation on the threshold of Alaska’s 50th anniversary as a State.

Now come the hard questions about Ted Stevens’ legacy. Will it be one of contribution or corruption? Fame or infamy? Public service or public shame?

Of course, a lot depends on whether his court appeals are successful or not. But those of us who’ve been to Sunday school and church in our lives have been taught about the concept of redemption. And I, for one, hope that Senator Stevens will be able to get through whatever lies ahead for him — including the punishment — and live out the rest of his days in a positive way.

Stevens, for sure, is a tough customer. By his own admission, he can be a “mean, miserable S.O.B” at times. I received my share of his ire during my years covering him. There were a few times that he stopped talking to me and other reporters altogether because we had the temerity to report controversial things he said, verbatim. But I was always able to get back to having a dialogue with him. And in spending all the time I did talking and listening to him, I learned so many things about Alaska, the Congress, the nation and the world.

There were many times when Stevens overreached, when he listened only to his own or like-minded counsel, when he bitterly reamed out foe and friend alike, when he went too far in pitching histrionic hissy fits. But he has also lived a remarkable life and has done many remarkable things that have benefited a lot of people inside and outside Alaska. You can see his handiwork in the national statutes that have framed much of Alaska’s existence over the past 40 years. And, lest we forget, his years representing the state in the U.S. Senate came with sacrifices — including a lot of quality time with family, the airplane crash death of his first wife and very nearly his own life.

What I hope is that Senator Stevens comes out of this chastened and with a renewed recognition that the office he held for 40 years was not some sort of divine right but a great privilege. And I hope that he has the privilege of contributing more in the way of public service between now and when he gets to the end of his mortal road. In his final comments on the Senate floor recently, he said he wants to do that. We should take him up on that pledge.