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.
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