Alaska’s version of the Soviet’s Uncle Joe, our Uncle Ted, is dead. The wheel of fate rolled over him. He had survived dangerous air missions in World War Two, those “Over the Hump.” He had crashed at the Anchorage airport which now bears his name and lost his first wife, Ann, in that same crash. Then his number came up. The surf board he kept in his office should go to the Smithsonian: Alaska’s Silver Surfer is no more.
Life in Alaska is a death-defying adventure on a daily basis. I recall on 9-11, driving south from Anchorage to Seward on a road known for its head-ons and making a mental list of all of the more likely dangers than terrorists that could befall any Alaskan on any working day, from black ice to moose on the highway to avalanches to a driver heading north on no sleep after combat fishing. Nature rules in Alaska, entirely indifferent to rich and powerful elite, their good works or their intrigues.
Each state has two Senators, even one with 600,000 people. And seniority makes for power. Two Senators in a small population state are cheaper to buy with corporate cash if they know how to stay in office. Uncle Ted bought his votes with a level of federal spending per capita unknown to any other state, especially in matters of defense and oil. John McCain hated Steven’s success. His revenge on Alaska –as he sleepwalked through his Presidential campaign -was his decision to take Sarah Palin to his bosom. What better way to insult Stevens, a Harvard law grad who had literally built Alaska from his Washington posting, than to trot out a Know-Nothing from the community that Stevens’ son had termed “Valley Trash?”
Ted was the Senatorial rep of Big Oil. He took over Bob Bartlett’s seat but not Bob’s warning to those who would write the state’s constitution that Alaska and resource extractors who either ripped and ran or sat on their holdings in their own corporate interest were entities with very different agenda. Every time this difference between Alaska and Big Oil emerged- as in the Valez disaster or when big Alaska Oil players wanted to merge, Stevens and all other Alaskan pols of both parties either stood with Big Oil or stood silent, following Uncle Ted’s lead.
When a young Alaska Native termed him a racist in a large pan-Native meeting meant to extol his accomplishments, the young woman was fired from her state post. At a meeting of the Alaska’s federal Indian law bar, lawyer attendees listened dutifully as Stevens droned on about his many accomplishments over a loud speaker from Washington, reminiscent of high school home room announcements or of North Korea. Alaskan etiquette was –when Uncle Ted talks, you listen and do not challenge.
Ted Stevens bought Alaskan loyalty- almost. As Taxpayers for Common sense documented, he was the consummate pork master. In 2008 it reported, Stevens’ “securing more than 891 earmarks worth $3.2 billion, which comes to $4,872 per capita over the last four years. This is more than 18 times the national average of $263 per capita for the same four years.” Although generous in his federal support to rural Alaska and the hundreds of Eskimo and Indian villages which serve as platforms for the last indigenous hunting and fishing peoples on the planet, rural voters betrayed him in the 2008 elections. Villagers have long memories and used their secret ballots to punish Uncle Ted for bad acts quickly forgotten or ignored by an ever-changing non-Native, urban population.
When Ted was US Solicitor for the territory, he gave free rein to the AEC’s Project Chariot and its related radiation experiments on Alaska Natives and their subsistence lifestyles. The belief that any federal financial help was better than none probably motivated Stevens to agree to a proposed undersea detonation of a nuclear blast near the village of Point Hope, just as the fledgling Indian Health Service agreed to measurement of radioactive body burdens both before and after AEC scientist Wayne Hanson placed Nevada radioactive materials into Alaska’s Northwest tundra to watch its flow through the food chain from lichen to caribou to Eskimo families, experiments on the least protected of Alaska’s population. “Radioactive Eskimo,” a 1990s film about those unreported experiments was quickly suppressed by a Alaskan Native Regional Corporation, long favored by Senator Stevens, before most Alaskans could connect the dots.
Stevens hated the notion that villages were sovereign tribes because it meant that they were competing sovereigns with Alaska. In the land claims settlement he designed to allow the oil pipeline to be built across disputed indigenous lands, native corporations, not village tribes, secured the rights to sub-surface riches and monetary awards. Hunting and fishing rights for Alaska natives which preexisted American law were explicitly extinguished by Congress in the same act. And Stevens was pivotal in rejecting a Congress substitute for this lost aboriginal right in committee hearings on the Alaska National Interest, Lands and Conservation Act, substituting a geographic (and not tribal) right to subsistence which was subservient to Alaska law where Alaska managed its fish and game. Alaska Natives should be state citizens first, even at the price of their core identity, confirmed in culture and law. So decided Uncle Ted.
Stevens was an Alaskan First-er, but his corporate loyalties and obligations created fissures. He left fishermen and Alaska natives, victims of the Prince William Sound Valdez disaster, twist in the wind while the Exxon-Mobil company fought for a decade’s delayed and vastly reduced settlement. His lifelong belief that any pork is good pork created the Missile Defense boondoggle in Alaska’s interior on an old military site where barrels of toxics are said to be buried. The connection of the Star Wars project to future plans for War in Space may explain his now-documented friendship with ex-NASA personnel as NASA shifts toward its new military agenda. Something besides a mutual love of fish may have defined his last flight with lobbyists and future lobbyists. Nobody deserved to die, but only the kids and the pilot were the true innocents.
Stevens was very loyal to his political and corporate colleagues. His decision to go forward with the trial on the presents lavished on him by an Oil Service Company before the 2008 election, and not after, may have been in exchange for a promise from the government not to prosecute his son and underlings involved in other strategic uses of federal dollars to assist an Alaska Sealife Center land deal in Seward or the fishing industry for whom his son worked. These well-documented matters have disappeared from public view. Still, he incorporated millions of dollars in Federal aid in noble efforts to fight breast cancer and other dire diseases into the defense budget as a tribute to his late wife and in his own commitment to medical research. When he lost his first wife, he had fellow crash survivor, Tony Motley, named ambassador to Brazil. He played King of Alaska to the hilt and legions of sycophants in Alaska went along with his temper tantrums and his attacks on those who see Wild Alaska as the ultimate treasure.
When he lost the 2008 race, he had not lost his connection to his former corporate and political colleagues or to a new generation of corporate lobbyists. Alaska had needed Ted Stevens in its first half century, but Ted Stevens, ever the Silver Surfer, had his own ideas about entitlement and Alaskan destiny. He thought he deserved to the states obsequious allegiance because he had brought home the bacon. His loving family and real friends should have set him straight- too bad they never did. Alaska and its attendant dangers had the last word. As it will for us all.
STEVE CONN lived in Alaska from 1972 until 2007. He is a retired professor, University of Alaska. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org