"To hell with politics, just do what's right for Alaska," has long been the motto of Sen. Ted Stevens, currently the Senate's only convicted felon. As the Senate's longest-serving Republican, Stevens was a legend in the Last Frontier, known as "Uncle Ted" for the hundreds of billions of federal dollars he secured for the state that he described as an "impoverished territory" when he took office in 1968. Convicted last month of seven felony counts for failing to report gifts, Stevens learned on Tuesday (his 85th birthday) that he had definitively lost his bid for re-election, and will be replaced by Democrat Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage. Despite his conviction, Stevens's colleagues greeted his final speech with a standing ovation on the Senate floor Thursday. NEWSWEEK's Karen Breslau spoke with University of Alaska historian Stephen Haycox about the impact that Stevens's departure will have on the state he helped to create. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Ted Stevens was appointed to his Senate seat in 1968, nine years after statehood. What was his Alaska like in those days?
Stephen Haycox: 1968 was a threshold year. That's when the Prudhoe Bay discovery was confirmed. Before that, Alaska was impoverished, able to balance its budget only by selling leases to oil companies for exploration on state land. Before statehood [in 1959], statehood advocates operated in dreamland, where they believed if Alaska became a state, there would suddenly be population and development. In 1959, when Alaska was granted statehood, the population was only around 220,000. By 1968, it had grown to about 285,000. In the 1950s, Stevens worked for the Department of the Interior as an expert on Alaska affairs. He was supposed to be neutral and objective, but he wasn't. He worked hard behind the scenes and made himself part of the statehood movement.
What did Stevens go about doing in '68 on behalf of some 280,000 Alaskans?
First he settled Alaska native land claims. This was important because any projected pipeline to get oil to market would have to cross native land. Until then, there had been no treaties with Alaskan native people and without treaties no one knew what land might be subject to native title. By 1968, there was so much chaos that there was no chance of economic development because no one is going to invest if there is not clear title. Stevens worked assiduously and these claims were settled in 1971.
Then he had to get congress to authorize construction of Alaska from Prudhoe Bay down to Valdez [Alaska]. Environmental groups were suing to prevent the pipeline construction. Stevens worked from 1971 to 1973 and the result was the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act. Those were his two biggest challenges and he was very successful in meeting both of them.
How is it that Stevens became known as the consummate pork-slinger, the "Bridge to Nowhere" and all that?
The bridge to nowhere—actually there were two bridges, one in Ketchikan and one in Anchorage—wasn't really his thing at all. It was really [Rep.] Don Young's. Stevens was known more for being an absolutely loyal Republican, a pragmatic politician and as a fierce anti-environmentalist. Stevens knew that most people outside Alaska don't have a clue about Alaska. It's too big, too complex, too other. Stevens took on the job of educating the U.S. Congress and the federal bureaucracy of what Alaska was really like. The net result was that he converted that education into securing help from Congress to meet Alaska's needs.
What does this mean for Alaska to lose a founding father? I've heard him described as "Alaska's Fidel", not in terms of his politics, but in the sense that he has been around since the beginning.
It signals the end of an era, politically and economically. Because the population of Alaska is so transient, newer residents don't associate him with his work to establish statehood, or to secure economic development. So, among those people there's not a lot of mourning that the father figure is gone. But there is a real schizophrenia. The permanent population is experiencing a profound sense of sadness. If you are a senator in Alaska you know damn near everybody in the state. He would go out of his way to help people. The personal tragedy is profound. As is the paradox—he voted for the very ethics act that he was convicted under.
Stevens has been lampooned of late, but how will he ultimately be remembered in Alaska?
He'll continue to be looked up to. He was convicted on very technical charges, of failing to report gifts and it's still on appeal. It's not like he was out stealing cars. They are of a different order. Stevens commanded tremendous respect. In part because of his own integrity and hard work on behalf of Alaskans. Second because of money he brought to Alaska and because of how he helped the state develop. People will remember that. The details of these convictions, even if upheld, will be suppressed [compared to] what he accomplished. He'll continue to be remembered as the most important Alaska politician ever.