The Last Frontiersman
Posted on August 11, 2010
The last line in the New York Times obituary is classic: “I didn’t lose my temper. I know right where it is.” That was all you really needed to know about Ted Stevens, who at times could be very unpleasant.
He was unpleasant with a purpose. And that purpose was to drag Alaska into the 20th century.
If Alaska is the last American frontier, then Ted Stevens was the last frontiersman. It should surprise no one that he died in a plane crash going on a fishing trip at age 86. He himself called his own shot when he told his colleague Mo Udall that he was going to die in a plane crash.
The only other way for Ted Stevens to die was with his boots on in the Senate chamber, getting more money for his beloved home state.
I played poker once with Ted Stevens, and it was a great experience. He wasn’t unpleasant at all when you played poker with him, or drank a glass of his favorite red wine with him.
That Stevens on occasion liked some of the finer things in life is no crime. If anybody deserved a fine glass of wine, it was Ted Stevens.
Stevens was a pragmatic conservative. As a frontiersman, he didn’t have time for ideological purity. He had a state to build, a state that needed roads, and bridges, and infrastructure, and help of all kinds. And the people of Alaska appreciated his efforts so much that they named him “Alaska’s man of the century.”
Stevens was the kind of tough SOB who flew transport planes into China during the Second World War to defeat the Japanese empire. It takes a special toughness to fly those kind of slow lumbering planes on a route as perilous as the “Hump,” because those planes were sitting ducks for the Zeroes that sought to stop them.
If you can fly into that kind of turbulence, the kind that comes from anti-artillery guns and enemy fighter pilots, then dealing with smart-assed Senate colleagues who wear their ideology on their sleeves is no problem.
Stevens was especially close to other World War II colleagues, especially Daniel Inouye, the Japanese-American war veteran who once was interned on suspicion of treason, and then got his arm shot off in defense of the America that once vilified him.
Inouye and Stevens, two brothers-in-arms, fighting off the naysayers, as they delivered what they saw as the necessary funding to make their late-joining states full members of the United States of America, were joined by life experiences and a sense of purpose that made them especially effective on the Appropriations Committee.
Stevens also fought off an out-of-control Justice Department, eventually getting a tainted corruption conviction overturned, a conviction that finally brought Stevens political career to an end.
Stevens lost his reelection to Mark Begich. History is replete with cruel irony, and the irony that Begich’s father lost his life in the same way that Ted Stevens should be lost on no one.
In Alaska, the final American frontier, the frontiersmen don’t get scalped by an Indian attack. They die in a plane crash. And that is how America’s Last Frontiersman died yesterday.