Sen. Ted Stevens dies in plane crash
Tuesday, August 10, 2010; 4:00 PM
Washington Post congressional correspondent Paul Kane discussed the life of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.
Gallery: Ted Stevens's Senate career
Paul Kane: Good afternoon, for this impromptu discussion of Ted Stevens, the man, the myths, the legends that go with such a larger than life figure on Capitol Hill for so long.
Let me start with some stats:
That's the link to the Senate hisotrian's 10,000-vote club. The only people with more votes than Stevens were Bob Byrd, Strom Thurmond, Dan Inouye and Ted Kennedy. This has been an amazing time of change in the Senate, with 3 of the 5 most prolific senators ever passing away within a year of each other: Kennedy, Byrd and now Stevens.
That's roughly 50,000 combined votes among them. Byrd and Stevens were attached at the hip as leaders of the Appropriations Committee, with only Inouye -- now appropriations chairman -- having a closer bond with Stevens.
This is a strange day. Over in the House, another octogenarian, Charlie Rangel, is daring his colleagues to expel him for his transgressions. I won't ignore the ethical/legal issues surrounding Stevens, but this is the latest in a long line of bad developments for the old bulls of Congress. On to the questions.
Trial: Can you clear up Sen. Stevens's status after his trial? He was convicted, but then there was some misconduct found against the Justice Dept., right?
Any idea if he was bitter that he lost his election in 2008, when the conviction was eventually overturned?
Paul Kane: How is it possible that he would not be bitter?
There's our story from the time that Democratic AG Holder asked for the case to be dismissed. The prosecutors were found to have violated all sortsa rules of evidence, not to mention other unseemly details. There are those that believe what Ted Stevens was guilty of was something akin to what Rangel stands accused of -- Congressional Entitlement Syndrome. Stay around here long enough, and you begin to think the rules don't apply to you, and that it doesn't matter if you let people know about the $200,000 remodeling to your home outside Anchorage or the $600,000 in assets and income from your Harlem brownstones and Dominican villas.
The question about the Stevens case was, was it actually criminal? The Democratic attorney general said no, it wasn't.
Fort Washington, PA: My condolences the the family and colleagues of Sen. Stevens, and to the people of Alaska.
Was anyone at Justice ever held accountable for the Stevens case?
Paul Kane: Here's a story from June 2009 about the prosecutors being sent to other offices. I'll keep searching for the latest information as this chat continues.
Needless to say, this case has made DOJ very, very hesitant to bring any other congressional corruption cases unless they really do have the case in the bag.
Washington, D.C.: Hi Paul -- did you have any personal interactions with Sen. Stevens that stand out? How was he generally viewed by the press -- cooperative, belligerent, etc.
Paul Kane: A few lighter hearted recollections.
Uncle Ted -- that's how he was known here in the Capitol -- he was a huge Incredible Hulk fan. Huge. On any day of a really big vote, he'd break out his patented Hulk tie and wear it. When the studios decided to make the Marvel comic into a movie, they threw a party in the Capitol, inside the ornate Mansfield Room just off the Senate floor. Stevens was the guest of honor, and as a gift they gave him a big foam Hulk head/mask and a pair of foam Hulk hands.
He laughed uproariously at this. Then, from the back of the room, I shouted, "Put them on."
So, the man who as president pro temp was in the line of presidential succession put on a fake Hulk head/mask and the hands. Then started to roar.
It was vintage Uncle Ted. he took the mask/head off and he was a ball of sweat, but a ball of happy sweat.
Philadelphia, Pa.: I understand Ted Stevens had a pilot's license, although I would presume he was not flying. Do you know if this is true? I was wondering if perhaps he might have been in the co-pilot's seat, which is usually one of the more dangerous seats to be in when there is a crash.
Paul Kane: Stevens was a decorated pilot in World War II. I think he might have kept his pilot's license, but no, he was not flying this particular craft, and not sure where he was seated in the plane.
washingtonpost.com: How is Sen. Stevens most likely to be remembered?
Paul Kane: The Chinese, years after Mao's death, declared that there was a 70/30 thing -- 70% brilliant, 30% not so much.
I'm not at all comparing Ted Stevens to Chairman Mao, but I think there will be a similarly complicated view of Uncle Ted. He was a towering figure who chaired more committees than any other senator ever: appropriations, commerce, ethics (yes, he chaired ethics in the '80s), to name a few.
He steered billions and billions of dollars to his state, helping create a modern Alaska that is now friendly to tourists and hikers and all sortsa Outsiders. (That's how native-born Alaskans refer to those from the Lower 48.)
But Stevens became a controversial figure throughout his final 6 years in office. He was adamant that drilling occur in ANWR. During ANWR drilling debates, he, more than once, threatened to either a) resign or b) campaign against everyone who voted no.
(He did neither, although he and a few of his VECO friends did donate heavily to Sen. Maria Cantwell's opponent in 2006 as she coasted to reelection.)
The corruption charges centered on all the gifts that VECO and its executives gave him, most famously the reconstruction of his home outside Anchorage. There's no question that those gifts have forever tarnished the image of this tiny, but incredibly powerful, man.
To what degree will likely depend on your political leanings.
Arlington, Va.: Does the fact that, by virtue of serving so long, a senator from such a sparsely populated state could accumulate so much power illustrate some of the problems with the Senate?
Paul Kane: I think all the coverage of Stevens will include a large dose of that 30% I referred to earlier.
Bob Byrd's death did not mean his past leadership in the KKK was washed away.
Alaska = Federal Largess: Sarah Palin and Ted Stevens railed against big government. Has anyone ever asked them why Alaska residents are among the country's biggest per-capita beneficiaries of federal largess? How did Ted Stevens justify the "bridge to nowhere"?
Paul Kane: Let's go straight to John McCain's statement: U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) today made the following statement regarding the tragic accident that claimed the life of former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK): "Senator Stevens' legacy will be his work on behalf of his beloved Alaska as its long serving United States Senator and his deep love for his family, his staff and his home state. Cindy and I send our prayers and thoughts to his wife Catherine and his family during this difficult time."
McCain and Stevens had a serious, serious dislike for one another. McCain hates appropriators, and he always fought with Stevens, who hated people who didn't love appropriators.
Immediately after the Stevens guilty verdict, McCain called on him to resign.
Herndon, Va.: Sad to hear the news about Uncle Ted. Lived up in Alaska for several years and personally reaped the benefits of the work and federal funding he turned towards the state. He may have walked the line, but he did right by his constituents.
Paul Kane: "He did right by his constituents." This is the amazing thing about Stevens, and it applies to someone like Rangel and to many other scandalous figures.
Say what you will about him, but his constituents loved him. They didn't mind the federal pork, they loved it. They don't mind that the Anchorage airport is named after Stevens. They love it.
The man was found guilty of federal felonies in a Washington courthouse, in a trial that pinned him down in DC for most of September and October, keeping him off the campaign trail in 2008. And when the dust originally settled the day after Election Day, this was our headline in the Post: "Convicted Sen. Ted Stevens Hangs On to Narrow Lead"
It took 2 more weeks for the votes to be fully counted, before they could determine that Stevens lost by a couple thousand votes to Mark Begich.
In a strange twist of political life coming full circle, Sen. Begich's father was Nick Begich, the congressman who died in a 1972 plane crash in the Alaska frontier.
'series of tubes': This phrase has to come pretty high in his obit, right?
Paul Kane: The funny thing about Stevens and the "series of tubes" remarks is that, despite his age, he was somewhat OK with technology. He was indeed a BlackBerry user, unlike some leaders. (I've never seen Pelosi touch the thing, and I think Mitch McConnell uses his to get updates on Louisville's standings in the AP college hoops rankings.)
But as chairman of the commerce committee, overseeing the Internet, yes, Stevens needed to be a little bit more up to date on his tech lingo.
Maryland: Hi Paul
I'm sorry to hear about Senator Stevens untimely death. It is sad for all especially his family. My condolenses.
Nonetheles.... will we have to now hear for a week about what a noble man he was?
Paul Kane: Another quick Stevens story of my own. He was a tough, mean guy, and he relished being tough and mean. He had a way of losing his temper, and then laughing about it all afterward. Well, the toughest time for him in dealing with the Capitol press corps was the legal troubles. As the FBI case tightened around Stevens in 2007, he increasingly declined any comment. Then, one day, as he was walking into the Senate GOP luncheon, I stopped and asked him when he'd be willing to talk about the case. There had been plenty of stories about the case, sourced to the ever present "those familiar with the investigation."
So, Stevens just opened up, for all of about 2 minutes. Maybe 90 seconds. But he told me the following: Yes, he was under investigation; yes, his son was also under investigation; the FBI had given him a document-preservation request so as to not destroy any files/memos that they might be asking for in the future; that he expected to turn over a bunch of documents soon; that he had a team of lawyers who told him he couldn't talk to the press.
It was the Post's first big story on Stevens, my oh my, and we went to the lawyers with it late that night to make sure it was all OK. The lawyers, used to stories sourcing "those familiar with the investigation, kept asking: Who's your source on that? And I kept telling them: Stevens, himself.
Justice Department officials, laughing at Stevens' honestly, gave me off the record guidance that simply said: We won't comment, but we don't want to say anything that would dissuade you from thinking Stevens is anything but an honest man.
Chicago: I can't think of another major airport named for somebody killed in a plane crash. But then I read about the crash that killed Stevens' first wife, and the crash that killed Sen. Begich's father, and see the other crashes up in Alaska, and figure they're probably not fazed by that stuff as much.
washingtonpost.com: Timeline of politicians in plane crashes
Paul Kane: I think it's inappropriate to say that they're "not that fazed by that stuff" in Alaska. Stevens was larger than life there, no other way to put it. this is a big deal.
But it is amazing how often these accidents happen that also take political figures. It's something about the frequency with which their lives revolve around always traveling, always traveling, I guess.
Paul Kane: OK, everyone, time for me to run. Thanks for the questions, I'll see you soon. -- pk
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