Alaska Sen. Stevens called Internet ’series of tubes,’ but was ‘Uncle Ted’ to constituents

By Mark Thiessen, AP
Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Senator delivered billions for Alaska’s future

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — To much of the nation, Ted Stevens was the crotchety senator who famously referred to the Internet as “a series of tubes” and fought to build the “Bridge to Nowhere.”

But to his constituents in Alaska, he was “Uncle Ted,” the state’s political patriarch who for four decades reliably delivered billions in federal dollars for the highways, pipelines and ports that helped move his sparsely populated state into the future.

The wiry octogenarian was built like a birch sapling, but he liked to encourage comparisons with the Incredible Hulk — an analogy that seemed appropriate for his outsized place in Alaska history.

“Though small of stature, Ted Stevens seemed larger than life, and anybody who knew him, knew him that way, for he built Alaska, and he stood for Alaska, and he fought for Alaskans,” said Gov. Sean Parnell. “Ted was a lion, who retreated before nothing.”

Stevens was killed Monday at 86 in a plane crash in a remote part of the state while on his way to a fishing trip. More than 30 years ago, he survived the crash of a private jet at Anchorage International Airport that killed his first wife, Ann.

Four others also died in the crash Monday outside Dillingham, about 325 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Alaskans loved him, even when the pork-barrel proposals he spearheaded became notorious.

“Ted always said, ‘To hell with politics. Do what is best for Alaska.’ He never apologized for fighting for his state, and Alaska is better for it today.” said Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat.

Stevens began his career in the days before Alaska statehood and did not abandon politics until 2008, when he was convicted on corruption charges shortly before Election Day. But a federal judge threw out the verdict because of misconduct by federal prosecutors.

He was appointed in December 1968 and became the longest-serving Republican in Senate history. (The late Strom Thurmond was in the Senate longer than Stevens, but he spent a decade there as a Democrat before switching to the GOP.)

Stevens was a legend in his home state, but his standing was hurt by allegations he accepted a bonanza of home renovations and fancy trimmings from VECO Corp., a powerful oil field services contractor, and then lied about it on congressional disclosure documents.

Indicted on federal charges in July 2008, he asked for an unusually speedy trial, hoping to clear his name before Election Day. Instead, he was convicted in late October of all seven counts — and narrowly lost his Senate seat to Democrat Mark Begich in the election.

Five months after the election, Attorney General Eric Holder dropped the indictment and declined to proceed with a new trial because of misconduct by federal prosecutors. Stevens never discussed the events publicly.

When his party held a majority, Stevens was chairman of several Senate committees, including the powerful Rules and Appropriations panels. For three years, he was majority whip. When the Democrats took back control of the Senate in January 2007, he lost his chairmanships but remained ranking Republican member of the powerful Commerce Committee.

His skill in appropriating military and other federal money for Alaska earned him the reputation among many in Washington as a pork-barrel politician.

“In the history of our country, no one man has done more for one state than Ted Stevens. His commitment to the people of Alaska and his nation spanned decades, and he left a lasting mark on both.” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky.

He was named Alaskan of the Century in 1999 for having the greatest impact on the state in 100 years — he brought in “Stevens money” that helped keep the remote state solvent. The Anchorage airport is named in his honor.

“The only special interest I care about is Alaska,” he was fond of saying.

A television reporter once quipped that Stevens could shoot Santa’s reindeer and Alaskans would applaud.

He helped shape landmark legislation on Alaska Native land claims, the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, fisheries management and public lands.

The “Bridge to Nowhere” would have connected Ketchikan, Alaska, to an island with just 50 residents at a cost of $200 million to $400 million. The proposal became a symbol of the waste associated with earmarks, which are items inserted into bills, often at the last minute.

Congress scrubbed funding for the bridge in 2005.

The following year, Stevens became the butt of jokes and satirical songs for describing the Internet as “a series of tubes” and for speaking of sending “an Internet” instead of an e-mail.

Most of the wisecracks portrayed Stevens as an old man who did not understand the technology over which he wielded influence as chairman of the Commerce Committee.

Stevens also was known for being easily angered both in private and on the Senate floor. Stevens saw his volatile temperament as a political tool.

“I don’t lose my temper,” he told the Anchorage Daily News in 1994. “I always know where it is.”

When critics called for his resignation after a Los Angeles Times story detailed how Stevens became a millionaire investing in companies he helped secure government contracts, he said: “If they think I am going to resign because of a story in a newspaper, they’re crazy.”

Stevens also took flak for aiding groups that hired his son, former state Senate President Ben Stevens, as a consultant and for pushing a lease deal with Boeing after it hired his wife’s law firm.

In 2007, FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents raided Stevens’ four-bedroom house south of Anchorage as part of the probe into his relationship with VECO. Former company chief Bill Allen, who pleaded guilty to bribing Alaska state legislators, testified that he oversaw extensive renovations at Stevens’ home and sent VECO employees to work on it.

During the trial, Stevens spent three days on the witness stand, vehemently denying any wrongdoing. He said his wife handled the business of the renovation and paid every bill they received. He said he paid $160,000 for the project and believed that covered everything.

After entering politics, Stevens needed time to win over Alaska voters. He was the Republican nominee for the Senate in 1962, but lost in the general election. Six years later, he lost his party’s nod to an Anchorage banker.

But when incumbent Democrat Bob Bartlett died in December 1968, Stevens was appointed to the vacancy by then-Gov. Walter J. Hickel, a Republican. Stevens won his first full term in 1972, and in subsequent elections was retained by wide margins. He won his sixth full term in 2002 with 78 percent of the vote.

Theodore Fulton Stevens was born Nov. 18, 1923, in Indianapolis. His parents divorced when he was young and, in 1938, he moved to southern California to live with relatives.

After graduating from high school in 1942, he attended college for a semester before joining the Army Air Corps. He flew cargo planes over “the hump” in the Himalayas during World War II and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

After the war, Stevens finished college at UCLA and in 1950 earned a law degree at Harvard. Fresh out of law school, he moved to Washington, D.C., to work and, in 1953, he drove cross-country to the Territory of Alaska to take a job in Fairbanks.

In 1954, Stevens was named U.S. attorney in Fairbanks and two years later returned to Washington to work on the statehood issue for Interior Secretary Fred Seaton, a statehood supporter. Eventually Stevens rose to become the Interior Department’s top lawyer.

He moved back to Alaska in 1961, opening a law practice in Anchorage. After losing the 1962 Senate race to incumbent Gruening, he won a seat in the Alaska House of Representatives. He was House majority leader when appointed to finish Bartlett’s term.

The crash that killed Stevens’ first wife happened in 1978, shortly after he was elected to his second full term. Two years later, he married Catherine Chandler, a lawyer from a prominent Democratic family in Alaska.

When Republicans took control of the Senate in 1981, Stevens became assistant majority leader. In 1984, he ran for majority leader, but lost by three votes to Kansas Sen. Bob Dole.

As the most senior Republican in the Senate, Stevens served as Senate president pro tempore and was third in the line of succession for the presidency until Democrats regained control of Congress in 2007.

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