NPR logo Some Alaskans See Stevens As Good As Vindicated

Politics

Some Alaskans See Stevens As Good As Vindicated

In his farewell speech from the Senate floor last November, then-Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska predicted that he would "see the day when I can remove the cloud that currently surrounds me."

At that moment, although his colleagues awarded him a standing ovation, the storm appeared unlikely to abate anytime soon. Stevens had been convicted of seven counts of concealing up to $250,000 in gifts from the head of an oil concern. He faced a significant prison term and had just lost the U.S. Senate seat he had held for 40 years.

It appeared an ignominious end for the longest-serving Republican senator in history, and one who had spent nearly half his life — and his state's entire life — in the elite chamber.

But Wednesday morning, many Alaska politicos — and former constituents — predicted that the Justice Department's blockbuster decision to drop its case against Stevens would largely eliminate the shame that shadowed the 85-year-old Harvard-trained lawyer.

In Alaska, anyway.

How the rest of the country ends up viewing the dismissal is very likely a different story, says Anchorage pollster Marc Hellenthal.

'Always A Little Asterisk' By His Name

Indeed, a statement released by Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, took pains to praise U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for showing that "he is committed to the rule of law, regardless of politics." Leahy avoided any direct mention of Stevens' fate.

Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress and legislative politics at the liberal Brookings Institution, said that Stevens, in his own statement about Holder's decision, "pegged it."

"He said it was unfortunate that the election was affected by the proceedings now recognized as unfair," Binder said. "He put it best."

Holder's decision, Binder says, "doesn't really exonerate Stevens and it doesn't really lift the cloud. But it shifts the focus to government misconduct and makes the whole thing a little murkier."

"When you think of Ted Stevens, there will always be a little asterisk," she said. "But this gives you a little pause to think that, in the end, there were allegations that the government couldn't get it together to prove."

'Moral Indignation' In Alaska

But as far as Alaskans are concerned, said Hellenthal, who usually works with Republicans, "Sen. Stevens has been vindicated."

"And there will be moral indignation here in Alaska against the Justice Department and its concept of justice," he said.

As word spread that Holder had dismissed the indictments because of alleged prosecutorial misconduct and that there would be no new trial, many Alaskans — including former Anchorage Mayor Jack Roderick — expressed relief.

"Wow, wow," said Roderick on learning the news from a reporter. "This is terrific — not from a legal standpoint, but from the standpoint of Ted Stevens' legacy."

"He was already penalized: He lost his job," said Roderick, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party and longtime friend of Stevens. The two once practiced law together.

"I think this will reconstruct his reputation, rehabilitate him," Roderick said. "Stevens obviously made a mistake, and everyone has their own opinion on what happened."

Indeed, they do. And Wednesday morning Alaska blogs and chat rooms were filling up with those opinions.

Comments posted Wednesday morning reflected the range of emotion that surrounds Stevens. He's either the beloved "Uncle Ted" who represented the interests of the state with undiminished ferocity, or an "arrogant and out-of-touch" crook who just got away with something.

Begich Got 'Very, Very Lucky'?

Some online commenters said they believe that the charges against Stevens were a setup; others asked whether Democrat Mark Begich's razor-thin defeat of Stevens in the U.S. Senate race last fall could be vacated.

"We need Senator Ted in Washington, with his vast knowledge of how to work for Alaska," wrote one commenter on the Anchorage Daily News site.

Many Alaskans have argued that Stevens would have won another term had he not been convicted the week before the election. After all, he lost to Begich by only 1 percentage point.

"What we're looking at is a considerable injustice," says Ivan Moore, a pollster based in Anchorage. "A long and distinguished career was brought to an end."

"And, of course, that can't be reversed," he said.

Not that Stevens' once-stratospheric popularity hadn't taken earlier hits.

His outbursts on the Senate floor, his "snit fits" during debates over opening up Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, and his famous speech referring to the Internet as a "series of tubes" all led to erosion in his poll numbers, Moore said.

But they had a long way to fall: The percentage of Alaskans saying they approved of Stevens once exceeded 80 percent. They had drifted into the 50 and 60 percent range pre-indictment, Moore said.

By the time last year's election rolled around, his approval rating had fallen into the 40s.

"Considering that he had seven felony counts against him, it wasn't as big a hit that one would expect — and indicative of the fact that a lot of people stood behind him," Moore said. "There will be a lot of people who sit and think today that Sen. Begich is very, very lucky."

On the progressive blog The Mudflats, the headline read "ConvicTed No More."

"Alaskans love their heroes, sometimes warts and all," wrote the anonymous host. "There are those who will never believe that Stevens was innocent on all seven of the felony counts. ... But as far as this chapter in the life and times of Ted Stevens, it looks like it's closed."

And there is financial comfort in that, too, suggested a commenter on the Daily News site: "At least we don't have to rename the airport now."

We no longer support commenting on NPR.org stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.