Ted Stevens never worried much about making friends in Washington. “I’m a mean, miserable S.O.B.,” he once declared. He wasn’t speaking with contrition; he was bragging. Stevens was a tough character—brusque, short-tempered, and even vindictive. To underscore the point, he sometimes wore an Incredible Hulk necktie when he fought battles on the Senate floor. Those may not sound like winning qualities in a politician, but Stevens—who was killed in a plane crash in southwestern Alaska last night— harnessed them in the service of an epic, combative, and ultimately severely tarnished political career.
In the home stretch of a Senate career that began in 1968, Stevens was a titan in both Washington and Alaska. Over four decades he emerged as part of an old guard of power brokers who mastered the Senate’s arcane rules and gathered enormous institutional power. At the peak of his influence, Stevens chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee in the Republican Senate that reigned for most of the Bush years, making him one of the most powerful men in Washington.
But Stevens rarely used that power in the service of grand ideology. Though he was a reliable conservative vote, Stevens’s his true ideology was the promotion of Alaska. Few things animated him more than his ferocious battles to allow oil drilling in the state’s national wildlife reserve, known as ANWR (Stevens once pronounced himself “seriously depressed” about his failure to end the drilling ban). And as appropriations chairman, a job that offered him vast control over the federal budget, he steered billions of dollars in pork spending back home, dollars that he referred to as “Stevens money.” As a supporter of projects like Alaska’s infamous $278 million Bridge to Nowhere, Stevens was second only to the late Senator Robert Byrd as an advocate of projects often indefensible beyond the borders of his home state. (Stevens was a frequent target of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, which calculates that he secured 1,452 projects totaling $3.4 billion from 1995 to 2008.)
This potency came despite the way Stevens styled his difficult personality a point of pride. He once called certain of his critics “psychopaths” and wished that he lived in the days of dueling when she could “have shot a couple of the sons of bitches.” In truth, Stevens seemed to use his nastiness to strategic effect. “I want them to believe that I’ll make [another senator’s] life miserable if they don’t listen to me,” he once told an interviewer. The flip side of this anger is that Stevens’s colleagues knew they could trust him. At a time when the old collegial traditions of the Senate are breaking down, Stevens’s handshake was one his colleagues knew they could count on. “You know where he stands,” George W. Bush once said at a campaign event for Stevens. “[T]here’s no bull about him.”
That’s an admirable quality, even in a difficult person. But no account of Stevens’s life can ignore the crippling conclusion to his career. In July 2008 Stevens was indicted on charges that he secretly accepted more than $250,000 in gifts and home renovations from the oil firm of an Alaska businessman who wanted legislative favors from him. A federal grand jury convicted him of the charges a few months later, and that November he was defeated by less than 4,000 votes. But that, after all, is a remarkably close margin for a politician who had just been convicted of corruption—and a testament to the loyalty he commanded from a state to which he’d delivered billions.
Stevens’s long career took one last twist when, in April 2009, his conviction was voided after a judge found that federal prosecutors had withheld information from the senator’s lawyers that might have helped him. Stevens’s allies tried it as a vindication—even though he was never affirmatively cleared of the charges.
Decades ago, Stevens said he’d had a premonition of his own death in a plane crash. He almost met that fate soon after, when a Learjet in which he was flying in 1978 was slammed down by a gust of wind while landing at Anchorage International Airport. Five people aboard were killed, including Stevens’ wife. The Senator walked away unscathed. Some have suggested that the crash changed Stevens permanently, and instilled him with a bitterness that manifested itself in his public life as anger. Perhaps that helps to explain how Stevens became the Incredible Hulk of the Senate. But the question seems moot, now that his dark premonition has been fulfilled.