Out in the cold
A federal grand jury in Washington indicted Sen. Ted Stevens on corruption charges Tuesday. The reaction in Alaska, four time zones away, was not so much “why?” as “why now?” After all, government prosecutors have been discussing the possibility for more than a year, and many Alaskans assumed that there would be no indictment in the run-up to the state’s Aug. 26 GOP primary.
The FBI raided the Girdwood home of Alaska’s senior senator last summer. His colleague, Rep. Don Young, is under investigation. The senator’s son, former state Sen. Ben Stevens, is under investigation. A gaggle of state legislators, lobbyists and businessmen have been arrested and either pleaded guilty to corruption or been convicted at trial.
So the fitting room for new prison suits is crowded, and Alaskans are wondering if the 84-year-old Stevens, whom constituents had taken to calling “senator for life,” will be joining those getting measured.
That doesn’t mean he won’t win the GOP primary. His six opponents are little known, and after all, Ted Stevens is a living legend.
Outside -- as Alaskans call the rest of the United States -- Stevens is known for supporting the “bridge to nowhere,” calling the Internet “a series of tubes” and throwing tantrums on the Senate floor when he doesn’t get his way. Here, he is known as the purveyor of endless federal financial largesse -- billions of dollars, not mere millions -- and for his role in shaping virtually every federal policy affecting his state for the last four decades. In Alaska, his fingerprints are like the snow in winter -- everywhere. His ability to deliver for his constituents has made him so popular that he has not had a serious election challenge since the early 1970s.
So Alaskans appreciate what Stevens has done for them, and their gratitude may be enough to propel him to victory in the Republican primary.
But not to victory in November -- not when the Democrats are about to nominate a man who stands in almost perfect contrast to him, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.
Begich, 46, is a polished performer who has built a statewide reputation as an effective moderate. Politics is in his blood; he’s the son of former Rep. Nick Begich, who disappeared in a 1972 plane crash while campaigning for reelection. Mark Begich is well-funded, and it’s easy to imagine the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee sending him gunnysacks full of money now that Stevens has been indicted. The mayor’s critics have complained about a couple of real estate deals he made, but their complaints have been largely ignored by the voters.
Begich’s campaign has been all about tomorrow: Look what I can do for you. Stevens’ campaign has been all about the past: Look what I have done for you.
But Stevens’ recent past has been all about the corruption investigation and the legislative indictments and convictions that have engulfed prominent figures in the state Capitol. Moreover, Ben Stevens probably made himself the most unpopular public figure in the state before this latest investigation by shamelessly using his father’s name and connections to make hundreds of thousands of dollars. Few Alaskans believe that he could have earned the money if he were anybody but Ted Stevens’ boy.
The Ted Stevens story is a tale of overcoming adversity. As a child in a broken family in Indianapolis; a teen sent to live with relatives in Southern California; a young federal prosecutor in Fairbanks; and a Senate candidate in Anchorage. In 1962, he ran for the Senate and was defeated in the general election. In 1968, he ran again and was defeated in the primary. His political career appeared to be over until Sen. Bob Bartlett died and Gov. Walter J. Hickel made him Bartlett’s replacement.
In Washington, he made himself indispensable to the 49th state, and in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, he was showered with honors and encomiums including “Alaskan of the Century,” a title bestowed by one Anchorage civic group.
But that was the last century.
Once upon a time, a king asked the court philosopher, “Tell me something that is true today, will be true tomorrow and will be true for all time.” The philosopher replied, “Nothing lasts forever.” After serving 40 years in the Senate, Stevens is about to find out what the philosopher meant.
If Stevens had retired in 1996 or 2002, at the height of his power, it’s unlikely that he now would be under investigation and indictment. He would have been a retired, revered figure; he would have avoided many decisions that drew the government’s attention to him. But he refused to accept retirement and soldiered on into a corruption scandal that is going to end his Washington career -- in the election booth or at trial.