Obituary: Ted Stevens, Fiery And Unapologetic, Fought For Alaska Former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, 86, who was killed in a Monday night plane crash, wielded outsized clout in the Senate, usually on behalf of his vast state. Though infamous for his fiery temper and often cranky demeanor, Stevens was not strongly partisan: He was first and foremost an appropriator.
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Stevens, Fiery, Unapologetic, Fought For Alaska

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Stevens, Fiery, Unapologetic, Fought For Alaska

Stevens, Fiery, Unapologetic, Fought For Alaska

Stevens, Fiery, Unapologetic, Fought For Alaska

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/129112371/129112677" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens was not a big man — a fact he knew well and could joke about. He was often seen on the Senate floor wearing a goofy Incredible Hulk tie. But he wielded outsized clout, usually on behalf of his vast state.

Stevens, 86, who was killed in a Monday night plane crash, held an impressive number of titles during his 40 years in the Senate — chairman of the Rules Committee, the Appropriations Committee, the Commerce Committee and more — and he became the longest-serving Republican senator ever. He eventually served as president pro tempore, third in the line of presidential succession.

But Stevens was found guilty of violating federal ethics laws in October 2008 and shortly afterward was defeated for re-election — although the case against him was later dropped.

Early Life

A native of Indiana, Stevens first served his country as an Army Air Corps pilot in World War II. After the war, he got a law degree from Harvard — selling his blood and working as a bartender to help pay his tuition.

He moved to Alaska in the early 1950s, working at a Fairbanks law firm. He served as U.S. attorney, worked in the Interior Department and won election as a state legislator. After two unsuccessful campaigns for the job, Stevens was appointed to the Senate in 1968 and then was returned to the seat by voters for decades.

But his career was nearly cut short by an earlier plane crash at the Anchorage airport in 1978 that killed his first wife.

Pork-Barrel Projects

In the Senate, Stevens was a tireless advocate of developing Alaska's natural resources, chief among them oil. He fought many battles over exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"We're talking about 1 1/2 million acres on the Arctic plain that was set aside in 1980 for the purpose of oil and gas exploration. It is not wilderness!" Stevens once said. "Anyone who comes to this floor and says this is drilling in the wilderness is a liar! A liar!"

Though infamous for his fiery temper and often cranky demeanor, Stevens was not strongly partisan: He was first and foremost an appropriator. He once said that Alaska had been left out of a lot of things, and that his job was to close the gap. He secured funds for Alaska's rural medical clinics, highways, military bases, port facilities and public broadcasting.

He was a favorite target of anti-earmark lawmakers, many from his own party. It was a conflict that climaxed with a bridge he supported for Ketchikan, Alaska, in 2005, which became known as the "Bridge to Nowhere."

Stevens was unapologetic: "I'm guilty of asking the Senate for pork, and proud of the Senate for giving it to me."

Ethics Charges

But the money-power exchange would also prove Stevens' political undoing. After a two-year investigation, Stevens was found guilty in October 2008 of seven ethics violations, including signing false Senate financial disclosure forms hiding some $250,000 in gifts between 1999 and 2006 — most related to renovations at Stevens' Alaska home.

The verdict came shortly before the November election, which he lost by fewer than 4,000 votes to the Democratic mayor of Anchorage, Mark Begich.

Stevens appealed his conviction, and in April of the next year, the new attorney general, Eric Holder, found evidence of prosecutorial misconduct in the case and promptly ordered the charges against Stevens dismissed.

When that happened, the now-former senator had little to say: "Tell them all I'm going to enjoy this wonderful day. That's all."

In his farewell speech to the Senate, Stevens said his motto was: "To hell with politics, just do what's right for Alaska." He said he tried every day to live up to those words.

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