Stories Of Uncle Ted
Alaska says “goodbye” today to the guy the state legislature once voted “the Alaskan of the Century.”
I’m betting the ceremony in the great north – Vice President Biden is scheduled to speak – will be sad and historic and will remind all there, as well as the rest of us, that we reflect too little, and often too late, on the greatness and the humanity of people who, in one way or another, have touched our lives.
A group of my Gallatin colleagues – Republicans and Democrats – had the good fortune over long years to have encounters both large and important and small and meaningful with Ted Stevens who will go down in the history books as the longest serving Senate Republican in history and one of the “old school” members of the Senate. Stevens’ life and career is indeed one for the history books.
There follows some of the recollections, too late for sure, but no less important for the lessons they carry.
Cecil D. Andrus, four-term Idaho Governor and Interior Secretary from 1977-1981
Senator Stevens, even before my arrival at Interior, had worked out a “deal” of some sort with the Appropriations Committee chairman, the late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who also nominally chaired the Interior Appropriations subcommittee. I say nominally because Senator Byrd basically let Senator Stevens run the subcommittee.
It was a Democratic Congress and a Democratic Senate, yet I had to face Senator Stevens sitting in the chairman’s seat when testifying. Even the majority staff answered to Stevens.
Using this power, Stevens on one occasion summoned me to appear before “his” subcommittee to justify a slightly more than $1 million request for the budget of the Interior Department’s Office of Public Affairs. This would have been the fall of 1978.
Earlier that summer I had personally led a group of some 30 journalists from across the United States on a 10-day “resource inspection” tour of many of the areas my department was proposing be aside for lasting protection as part of the deal creating the Trans-Alaska pipeline and the settling of native land claims.
It was a glorious trip and it garnered gallons of free ink in major publications all across the country. And Senator Stevens was furious.
In his view, I was lobbying Congress with taxpayer money. In my book I was educating voters through the media as to what the stakes were and why every American should care about Alaska. Ted demanded to know the cost of everything, the manifests of who flew on what flights, the itinerary – all of which he pored over with a fine tooth comb. He subjected me to several hours of detailed questions about this ridiculously small office budget, when the entire Interior budget was about $4 billion.
Thankfully, I’d done my homework and was prepared, patiently answering the senator’s numerous questions designed to embarrass me.
Finally, Ted took off on a tangent. He asked if I had yet read John McPhee’s “Coming into the Country,” the fine book on Alaska and Alaskans that had just been published. Before I could answer he launched into a long soliloquy about what a great book it was and how it had captured the fierce independence of Alaskans and their “hands off me” and “no governmental interference” attitude.
It was not often one could best Senator Stevens, but that morning I was able to. I replied that not only had I read the book, Mr. McPhee was scheduled to have lunch with me that very day and unless the session adjourned very soon I would be late.
Clearly stunned that I had already read the book and surprised to hear the author and I would be visiting, the Senator had no choice but to stammer, “By all means, Mr. Secretary, keep your luncheon date. Meeting adjourned!”
Dan Lavey, Gallatin President and former Chief of Staff to Oregon Republican Sen. Gordon Smith
I met Senator Stevens briefly under very sad circumstances. We were both attending a memorial service for the son of a mutual friend. The back story, however, offers some insights into the man’s character and personality.
I’ve enjoyed a long-time relationship with former Senator Gordon Smith – serving has a political advisor and on his staff. When he ran for re-election in 2002, Smith pledged to oppose oiling drilling in ANWR – a long-time goal of Senator Stevens. Smith, who prided himself on building close relationships with his Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle, struggled to maintain his friendship with Stevens over the course of several high profile votes against opening the Alaska wilderness for energy development. Stevens was none too happy with Smith and let me know on several occasions.
In September 2003, Senator Smith tragically lost his son Garrett to suicide. It was a heartbreaking situation for Gordon, his wife Sharon and their family. When the news became public of Garrett’s death, Smith’s Senate colleagues rallied to the family’s side – offering comfort and support. None more so than the Senior Senator from Alaska. Indeed, Stevens personally helped organize a delegation of Senators to travel to Oregon for the memorial service and, as Pro Tempore of the Senate, made the decision to put the Senate in recess for a day allowing Senators to attend the memorial and honor the memory of Garrett Smith.
I know how much this act of kindness touched Senator Smith and his family. Here was this gruff, self described “SOB” who was widely known to have been very disappointed with Smith’s votes against ANWR, putting a personal relationship ahead of politics and policy. Other than exchanging a brief handshake with the man, I did not know him. But this act of grace on behalf of my friend I will never forget.
Chris Carlson, Gallatin Founding Partner and Director of Public Affairs in the Andrus Interior Department. Chris covered Stevens and the Alaska delegation as a young Washington correspondent.
In spite of Stevens’ pugnacious, acerbic style, it was clear he cared deeply and respected the Senate and his colleagues. He was smart as a whip and did his homework. Beneath the gruff exterior, lay a heart of gold and, on occasion, a keen sense of humor. He also had a terrific temper and was demanding of his staff. Consequently, he went through staff and chiefs of staff quickly.
I also knew Stevens to be an honest man of his word. I had a hard time giving any credence to government charges that he accepted corporate favors and could easily see him paying bills for work on his modest summer retreat, not realizing they had been heavily discounted by the contractor. Stevens loved the Senate and his work too much to risk losing it over nickel and dime greed.
If he was guilty of anything, it was the insidious arrogance of power that few can stymie. Even “Uncle Ted” started to believe his own press clippings. He must have thought he was bullet proof and certainly believed he was indispensable in the voters’ minds.
He was a realist, though, and when President Carter, following the suggestion of his Interior Secretary (Cecil Andrus), my old boss, used the Antiquities Act in November of 1978 to put much of Alaska into National Monuments, he knew he would have to negotiate and get passed decent and fair legislation.
My own Stevens story involves a tribute piece I wrote for Montana Magazine after the death of the great Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana. I’d been told by a Mansfield staffer that one of the very best Mansfield stories involved Stevens. I called the Senator and, rather amazing to me, he called me back promptly to talk about Mansfield. He’s the story Stevens recounted:
Stevens was a rookie Republican Senator in 1970, appointed to fill an unexpired term. Last in seniority and more than a little unsure of himself, he was determined to offer his own amendment to a pending ocean fishery bill being debated on the Senate floor. To prepare, Stevens had talked to his next-door neighbor and the floor manager of the bill, Senator Ed Muskie of Maine, to make certain he would have the chance to get his amendment considered.
Stevens knew he would be involved in Senate committee work while the bill was being debated on the Senate floor. In response, Muskie said he would get the word to Stevens in time to facilitate floor discussion of his amendment.
The call never came. Stevens vividly remembers his feelings more than 30 years later.
“When I realized that the roll call was underway, I rushed from the committee room back on the Senate floor, and not being one to mince words, I said to Muskie, ‘You son of a bitch, I have an amendment to this bill, and you know how much it means to me to be able to offer it.’”
Standing in his customary spot, observing the roll call was Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. He heard the raised voices and the obscenity.
“Mike said to me, ‘Senator, we just don’t use that kind of language on the floor of the Senate,’” Stevens said. “I apologized, but told Mansfield I was so upset because I had an amendment to the bill being voted on, and Senator Muskie told me I could present it, then hadn’t given me the chance.”
With the vote on final passage of the bill continuing, Mansfield asked Muskie, a fellow Democrat, if Stevens’ story was true.
“It’s true,” Muskie said, “but the amendment wouldn’t have passed. It’s just not necessary, Mike.”
Stevens then remembers that Mansfield turned to him and did something that was at the same time both simple and extraordinary. He asked for a copy of Stevens’ amendment. Stevens said what happened next has never happened again in the United States Senate.
Mansfield interrupted the roll call and asked unanimous consent to reverse course on the Senate calendar to the proper place where amendments could be offered. Stevens remembers dead silence in the chamber. The unanimous consent was granted and the Majority Leader was recognized.
“On behalf of the Senator from Alaska, I offer an amendment,” Mansfield said. “Does any Senator care to debate the amendment with the Senator from Alaska?” No Senator did.
Mansfield then turned to Stevens and asked if he cared to make a comment. Stevens still laughs at the thought that by opening his mouth he might have derailed the unprecedented action that was unfolding to his benefit on the Senate floor. He didn’t say a word.
In fact, no one, including Muskie, said a word. On the strength of Mike Mansfield’s sense of fairness – his character, really – the Stevens amendment passed that day without debate and remains the law today.
“When all this was over, Mike came over to me and said, ‘We are all equal on this floor, and a Senator must keep his word,’” Stevens says. “That was very meaningful to a new Senator and I have never forgotten it. Mike and I became wonderful friends and it began right there. He treated everyone alike without regard to politics or seniority.”
Stevens told me that his Democratic friend, Mike Mansfield, was “the best leader we ever had” in the Senate.
Ted Stevens will be remembered for a long time and for many things. A tough, demanding partisan; a fierce advocate for Alaska, but also a practical guy, a complex human like all of us. The kind of person you feel fortunate to have had a moment with. This is a day to remember – and celebrate – his life and accomplishments and all he touched.