After several hours of not knowing the fate of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, it is now confirmed that he was indeed on a plane that crashed in Alaska, and he was among the fatalities. It is a sad day in
Alaska, where Stevens was a living legend. But will his legacy be tainted by a corruption conviction -- later overturned -- that forced him out of the Senate, and for the many pork barrel projects he championed?
Stevens began his Senate career in 1968. When it ended in 2008, he was the longest serving Republican Senator ever. He was known in his home state as "Uncle Ted," for all of the money and expensive projects he brought to Alaska. "Stevens money," as it was known, helped keep the state afloat in lean years. He was so beloved, Stevens was named Alaskan of the Century in 1999.
They may have loved him in Alaska, but his work in steering projects to his state earned him a national reputation, in the lower 48, as a pork barrel poster boy. It all came to a head with the controversial "Bridge to Nowhere," a $450 million span that would have connected Ketchikan, Alaska, to an island with just 50 residents. The proposal became a symbol of the waste associated with earmarks, which are unrelated items inserted into bills, often at the last minute. Congress scrubbed funding for the bridge in 2005.
His public reputation tarnished, Stevens remained admired by his Senate colleagues, who considered him a formidable parliamentarian. When his party was in power, Stevens was chairman of several Senate committees, including the powerful Rules and Appropriations panels. For three years, he was majority whip. And for several years, as the most senior Republican, he was the Senate President Pro Tempore, third in line to the president.
But in July 2008, he was indicted on federal corruption charges for allegedly accepting home renovations and other gifts from VECO Corp., a powerful oil field services contractor, and then lying about it on congressional disclosure forms.
Stevens asked for a speedy trial, hoping to clear his name before Election Day. Instead, he was convicted a week before Alaskans went to the polls, and narrowly lost his Senate.
In his farewell speech to the Senate, he said: "I look only forward and I still see the day when I can remove the cloud that currently surrounds me."
That happened five months later, when Attorney General Eric Holder dropped the indictment and declined to proceed with a new trial because of misconduct by federal prosecutors. Stevens never discussed the events publicly.
And now he is gone at age 86. Despite the rest of the country's perception, he was a towering figure in Alaska and will be missed terribly. That would probably have suited Stevens just fine. As he was fond of saying, "The only special interest I care about is Alaska."