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Stevens's Payback Moment

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By Michael Crowley
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

If the charges announced yesterday are true, the powerful Alaska Republican Ted Stevens will end his four-decade Senate career in a sleazy flameout; the conservative committee baron is accused of concealing more than $250,000 in payments from the oil firm of an Alaska businessman who was allegedly seeking legislative rewards. Stevens says he is innocent, but if he's convicted, few tears will be shed in Washington. Stevens cultivated a tyrannical image and personalized politics to an extreme degree, dividing the world into friends and enemies and showing no mercy. This outlook carried him to great heights. But, nourished by the culture of a Republican-dominated Congress, it eventually became toxic.

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Stevens succeeded in Washington by understanding that fear can be a formidable weapon. "I'm a mean, miserable SOB," he once boasted. Congressional staffers frequently cite him as one of the meanest and most temperamental members of Congress. When girding for battle on the Senate floor, the cantankerous 84-year-old Stevens would often don his signature Incredible Hulk necktie. He has branded certain critics of his record "psychopaths" and once cracked during a clash with House Republicans, "I'm just sorry they repealed the law on dueling. I'd have shot a couple of the sons of [expletive]."

Indeed, Stevens kept meticulous track of who'd been naughty to him and who'd been nice. After one high-stakes vote on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a potential economic boon for Alaska for which he passionately crusaded, he declared that "[p]eople who vote against this today are voting against me. And I'll never forget it." (Never mind the environment, or gas prices, or the broader public interest; you were for -- or against -- Ted Stevens.)

And he followed through on his threats, sometimes campaigning against those who crossed him or finding other avenues for retribution. In 2006, he admitted that he was blocking a bill that would benefit Washington state -- payback for Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell crossing him on ANWR. Other senators operate in this manner, but few are as open about it as Stevens is -- or as personal. He once remarked that he "grew up at a time when people learned how to use their temper, not lose their temper."

In many environments, such behavior would be a fast track to social ostracism. But Stevens understood that, in Congress, being feared can be more important than being liked. And he thrived as a result. He acquired immense stature and power, serving on the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Senate Rules Committee and other panels before becoming chairman of the Appropriations Committee -- a perch he held for seven years and whose control over the federal purse strings makes it among the most powerful jobs in Washington. The more power Stevens accrued, naturally, the scarier he became.

Stevens's style of intimidation reached its apex just when it was most welcome. Before Democrats regained power in 2006, the Republican Congress played by Tom DeLay rules, marginalizing Democrats, brooking little dissent and, most saliently, enabling committee chairmen to funnel huge amounts of money to their home states and districts with little opposition -- despite the GOP's stated dedication to fiscal discipline. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, Stevens steered billions of dollars to Alaska, including $3 million to celebrate the Arctic Winter Games and $278 million for the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere." He even came to refer to such federal funding as "Stevens money." In the same style he used to personalize legislative feuds, Stevens personalized the public resources he was charged with stewarding. (Like other members of the GOP Congress, most notably Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who is serving time for accepting bribes, Stevens may also have been seduced by the material wealth of the businessmen and corporate lobbyists who kowtowed to his untrammeled power.)

Now he stands accused of taking that personalization one step further. Prosecutors allege that Stevens accepted gifts in return for legislative favors, but the charges really boil down to this: Stevens came to blur the line between the public and the private, to believe that Alaska was Ted Stevens and Ted Stevens was Alaska, and that what was good for one was good for the other. (Perhaps that's understandable; in 2000, after all, the senator was named "Alaskan of the century.") It's not yet clear whether any of Stevens's colleagues had an inkling that he might have been stretching his power too far. But if they did, they may have been too afraid to warn him. And that would be a fitting reward for the meanest man in Washington.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor at the New Republic.



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