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How not to celebrate Ted Stevens

I have to admit to being a little uncomfortable reading some of the glowing praise with which official Washington is showering former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). Nearly every press release has a line such as this one from President Obama: “Ted Stevens devoted his career to serving the people of Alaska…” Or this, from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.): “In the history of our country, no one man has done more for one state than Ted Stevens.” Or this, from Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.): “You always knew exactly where he stood…. He devoted his life to the State of Alaska, which he dearly loved, and fought for it every day of his life with conviction and passion.”

This is a familiar homage when a prominent member of Congress dies: He or she served his or her constituents well, and often this really means the lawmaker brought home pork-barrel spending that opinion writers decried when he or she was alive.

But this sort of praise always struck me as somewhat dishonest, a lazy way to avoid dealing candidly with the dealings of the recently deceased.

It’s hard to summarize Stevens’s decades-long career in Congress. But one defining theme is that he was old-school wheel-greaser who maintained cozy relationships with those who funded his campaigns and unapologetically poured federal money into his home state -- at times funding extravagances such as an airport in the Aleutians serving almost no one and, of course, the infamous Bridge to Nowhere. He also did good -- as his family put it, part of his legacy is the 49th star on America’s flag. And, as my colleague Alexandra Petri notes, perhaps among his most enduring contributions is coining the semi-ironic Internet parlance that describes the Web in terms of “tubes.”

But the euphemistic, he-brought-so-much-to-Alaska line implicitly valorizes his overattention to parochial concerns, when such behavior is, at best, morally neutral. Figures such as Stevens, one might reasonably conclude, are responding rationally to the incentives the system provides, perverse though the outcomes may sometimes be. Don’t blame him; blame the system that rewards those who zealously seek federal largesse beyond the bounds of reason. You can even admire his mastery of the system, how skillfully he directed money Alaska’s way. Though it would be stronger if Stevens exercised better judgment as one of the chief appropriators of taxpayers’ money, I accept that argument -- as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough to justify unvarnished acclaim on these grounds.

Praise Stevens for his military service and work on behalf of the armed forces. Praise him for his efforts to make Alaska a state. Heck, praise him for “tubes.” Just don’t confuse his lack of discretion for virtue.

By Stephen Stromberg  | August 11, 2010; 6:02 PM ET
Categories:  Stromberg  | Tags:  Stephen Stromberg  
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Comments

This is a lazy and ignorant post. I say that not as one who has any particular rooting interest in Ted Stevens' legacy as appropriations chair, which is mixed, but in annoyance in the sloppiness in the analysis. It simply ignores history to reduce Stevens' involvement in every issue important to Alaska as mere pork-barrelling. Stevens was at the forefront of issues like fisheries, Alaska Natives, pipelines and oil exploration. Whatever your views on those issues and Stevens approach to them, they are important to Alaska and have nothing to do with appropriations. Anybody who spends more than 30 seconds considering Stevens' career can't argue with his importance to Alaska, which is why many of those who otherwise detested him relied on that as a statement upon his passing.

This shoddy excuse for commentary shouldn't make it through the Post editorial process, but I suppose that the editorial staff is in decline along with the rest of the paper.

Posted by: ncdcva | August 11, 2010 7:09 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Stromberg's take on Ted Stevens career is just a superficial as those who focus only on the money he obtained for Alaska. Ted Stevens was a hard working, smart man who had the vision to transform Alaska from a third world resource supply for the United States to a state with roads, airports, web cams for weather, access to clean water, internet and infrastructure that the rest of the United States takes for granted. He also showed a refreshing level of bi-partisanship and flexibility that our politicians seem to lack. I thought the commentary was a lazy cheap shot on a complicated man's over 40 years of public service. I expect more from the Post.

Posted by: deborahlhansen | August 11, 2010 8:15 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if ncdcva and deborahlhansen would have written similar comments if Mr. Stromberg has written the same critique about the late Senator Byrd (D-WV).

Posted by: marmac5 | August 12, 2010 12:34 AM | Report abuse

Agreed...this should have been posted after the passing of Senator Byrd. You know, the former KKK member?

Or, even after Ted Kennedy, of Chappaquidic (sp) fame.

Why wait until a member of the GOP passes to kick dirt on the way he is eulogized?

Posted by: jpmenavich | August 12, 2010 6:54 AM | Report abuse

marmac5: 100 times yes. Sen. Byrd was immersed in West Virginia issues and was a true giant of the Senate. You are a partisan hack.

Posted by: ncdcva | August 12, 2010 8:31 AM | Report abuse

The tone of these eulogies sounds about right to me. Anybody who served in the Senate for as long as Ted Stevens did should be remembered for having served his country, and not just his constituency.
To his discredit, Senator Stevens was an Alaskan first, and an American somewhere farther down the list.

Posted by: AlanGrotheer | August 12, 2010 8:54 AM | Report abuse

Stevens beat the rap due to a (possibly deliberately) poorly run Justice Dept prosecution, but it is clear that he received substantial benefits from people seeking legislative favors. He remains a disgraced former senator in my book and does not regain nobility through death.

Posted by: glenerian | August 12, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse

I'm fairly certain that Ted Stevens primary interest in life was Ted Stevens. Alaska was just his operating platform. Byrd is another bird of the same feather as Stevens. Actually the flock is far to big to mention them all, but you can tell which they are. They circle over the corpse of this country looking for another scrap to steal.

Posted by: peterb37 | August 12, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse

Finally someone with moxy comes out and tells the truth: Stevens was just another corrupt, dirty politician with only his interests in mind. Let us not forget the 2008 shame scandal he brought on himself that led to his resignation.

I agree that if anything, we should honor his military service, but nothing more. He was a crook and a man devoid of much character

Posted by: adam23 | August 12, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

What is it with Alaska that since statehood its luminaries are either idiots, e.g., gold digging Palin, or corrupt to the core Stevenses. When Alaskans put such miscreants in power so that they may swill more deeply from the public trough, I find it difficult to give a damn about the fates of such "leaders" or their followers.

Posted by: tuonela | August 12, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

I take Mr. Stromberg's evaluation as an indictment of the entire political system, not just one person albeit inappropriately timed.

"But one defining theme is that he was old-school wheel-greaser who maintained cozy relationships with those who funded his campaigns... " defines American politics. It's gotta change.

Posted by: hebintn | August 12, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

Ted Stevens was for Alaska. That's all. Just Alaska. He didn't seem to be interested in the improvement of our country, (all of us), he simply did everything he possibly could for Alaska. So, for the people of Alaska, I am sure you are mourning his loss. For the rest of us,not so much. The only reason his case got thrown out of Court is because the prosecutors were a bit zealous. He most likely has all kinds of back pocket money. Kind of like Ted was for Alaska. Maybe a Senator Steven was doing what he should, taking care of Alaska, I thought Senators job was supposed to help help America, to think of and bring forth new legislation to help all of us. Like I said, he was for Alaska.

Posted by: ncarvill1 | August 12, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

The posters who say Stevens was only for Alaska either have very short or faulty memories. Committee chairmen cannot operate as only for their home state. However those with long careers (2 Teds and a Bob come to mind) do so because they haven't forgotten the needs of their home state, unlike a certain Senator that respresents my home state.

Posted by: scottNV | August 12, 2010 5:14 PM | Report abuse

what a lame post.

Posted by: fatkidspecial | August 15, 2010 9:56 PM | Report abuse

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