Among the more common epitaphs in Alaska are: “Controlled Flight Into Terrain” and “VFR Flight Into IFR Conditions.” We Alaskans fly a lot! And most of us have spent more than a few hours pacing the floor waiting for the “I’m there” phone call or pacing the airport waiting for the late plane to get in. Sometimes they don’t. I spent a couple of the more miserable hours of my life one day when I thought my wife might have been on a National Guard plane that went down approaching Juneau and I couldn’t find her or get any information about who was aboard. We always try to hold out hope when we hear of a crash or a missing plane but we all know that “missing” usually means they just haven’t found the body and “unconfirmed” just means they haven’t notified the next of kin. I don’t think I know anybody, at least not anybody who’s been here any length of time, who hasn’t lost a friend or relative in a plane crash.
I lost a friend today. We weren’t close, personal friends, but Ted Stevens and I knew each other well enough that if we met at a grip ‘n grin, he’d say “Hello, Art,” even if the aide might have whispered my name in his ear as I approached. The last dealing I had with him in his official capacity was when my son in Afghanistan wasn’t getting mail for weeks at the time. I contacted the Senator and very quickly my son was getting mail. Whatever he or his staff did, it was enough to cause some of his command to ask my kid to tell his parents to back off.
The story of Ted Stevens and the story of the State of Alaska are almost coincident. So is the story of my life here. The Senator had just won re-election in ’72 after his appointment in ’68 when I came to Alaska in ’74. I was pretty much your basic long-haired, dope-smoking, FM radio-listening Democrat back then and I worked for organized labor, but organized labor liked The Senator back then. That was back when organized labor was still guys, and yes, I mean guys, who got their hands dirty. We might rough somebody up, “requisition” some material, or stuff like that, but we didn’t sit behind desks and plot politics like the eunuchs in a Turkish whorehouse like the modern incarnation does. I don’t remember the first time I met him, sometime in the mid-’70s at some grip ‘n grin I’m sure; seems like I’ve always known him well enough to say hello.
We weren’t always on the same side, then or later. The first time I actually had a conversation beyond, “Hello how are you” with him was not a pleasant one. Stevens advocated taking the Carter/Democrat Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in ’80 because he thought he’d gotten all that was on the table for us. We here in Alaska didn’t much see it that way and neither did Senator Gravel (D-Alaska), and we in organized labor were backing Gravel and opposed to ANILCA. I met a lot of the people who would be very important in my later life, even important in my ultimately becoming a Republican, during that time. Back then organized labor and the business community could still work together pretty well. I was working for the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education, the AFL’s PAC, at the time. I worked with some prominent Chamber of Commerce types to raise the money for double truck ads in every major newspaper in America; newspapers were still important in ’80. The Senator had given many of his friends cufflinks when he was appointed to the Senate. They were diamond shaped and engraved around the diamond was, “To Hell With The Politics; Do What’s Right For Alaska.” We put a picture of those cufflinks in the middle of two newspaper pages, “Senator Stevens, Please Come Home” across the top, and the names of practically everybody who was anybody in Alaska across the bottom. He was incensed and I had a very heated telegram, remember those, and later phone call over how unfair it was. But the opposition over that was a political near-death experience for him and from there on out he pretty much followed the dictum on those cufflinks.
There is no doubt he got too far from Alaska and too close to DC in his later years. I really do believe he had no idea that what Bill Allen was charging him didn’t resemble the market value of what he was getting. He knew he was getting bills and paying them, and that was it. Any of you done a construction estimate from 5000 miles away lately?
All of you who know me know my stand on what many of you call porking; the US owns a lot more of Alaska than the State of Alaska does, and the US spending money on its own stuff isn’t the same as porking. I don’t know what piss-off Coburn was acting on, but the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” didn’t add one dime to Alaska allocation of federal highway money, it just dictated to the Alaska Legislature how some of that allocation would be spent. History proves why he did it; Sarah Palin kept the money but spent it in the Railbelt rather than in Southeast, which is exactly why the Ketchikan bridge was earmarked. You should see the new overpass and cloverleaf between the Glenn and Parks Highways that takes you to Wasilla. And I wanted to retch hearing her praising him today when she kicked him to the curb when he was being mau-maued by the Public Integrity Section’s goons.
I’ve now reached the place where headlines and obituaries really make me feel old. I knew everybody in Gov. Parnell’s press conference about The Senator’s death today. Gov. Hammond died a few years back; I knew him but never worked for him. Gov. Hickel died a few months ago. I worked for him from ’90 to ’94 and he’s one of the few people in the same league as Sen. Stevens in making this State. Now today, Sen. Stevens is taken, but at least it was in a fitting way. He was an active, agressive man, and it would have been horrible to watch him fade away as was the case with Governor Hickel. He died doing what he liked doing and in the place he loved. You can’t ask for much more.