Published November 29, 2008
They rose on the Senate floor. And they rose in the public viewing galleries, too. Applause filled the chamber. And many swatted away a tear or two and dabbed at their cheeks with Kleenex.
"I yield the floor for the very last time," said Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, concluding his valedictory address to his colleagues after serving 40 years in the Senate.
The emotional sendoff for the infamous Stevens, the convicted felon who was defeated for re-election earlier this month, consumed the next two hours' traffic on the Senate stage as his colleagues bade farewell to the longest-serving Republican in the institution's history.
As the tributes continued, they seemed to be a direct contradiction to how many on Capitol Hill perceive Stevens otherwise obstreperous, scowling demeanor when they encounter him in the Senate.
One fellow journalist told me she called him "Darth" Stevens, a reference to Darth Vader, one of the most frightening characters in cinematic history.
I then realized how accurate that description is. And not exactly the way you might think.
Darth Vader is one of the most frightening figures in cinematic history. But he's also one of the most tragic and sad characters ever created. His flowing, black cloak. Face obscured behind a tinted, mechanical mask. The pneumatic breathing. And the deep, extra-dimensional voice provided by James Earl Jones that rattled the walls of the auditorium when he spoke.
Throughout the original Star Wars, Darth Vader intimidates those around him. During a war council meeting aboard the Death Star, Vader uses "the force" to choke a skeptical Colonel. He pushes around lieutenants and underlings. He shows flashes of temper.
But those familiar with the Star Wars cannon know that the prequel episodes are devoted to showing how an innocent young boy evolved into the malevolent Darth Vader. You realize that Darth Vader's really not that threatening at all. He's just a schoolyard bully -- and like most bullies, he's very insecure, very scared.
So he puts on thuggish airs and runs roughshod over the meek as he storms around in his armored, cyborg suit. It's the only thing that keeps him alive after a host of devastating injuries nearly killed him.
In the final Star Wars film, Luke Skywalker pursues Vader, convinced there is still "good in him." And Vader proves his son correct when in his last act, he kills the evil emperor, ultimately saving the universe.
There are parallels between Stevens and Darth Vader.
Stevens encountered much hardship in his life. He grew up poor during the Great Depression in Indiana. He was engaged during World War II only to discover his bride married someone else while he flew a mission in Asia.
His first wife, Ann, died in the 1970s during a plane crash in Anchorage at the airport that now bears his name. Stevens himself barely survived.
"I thought my life had ended when my first wife died," Stevens told the Senate.
The senator remarried a few years later and had a child.
Critics skewered Stevens for larding up bills with millions of dollars of pork for Alaska. But Stevens defends those efforts to bring what was once a disease-ridden, impoverished territory into statehood.
With that background, it's easy to understand how Stevens could succumb to the dark side: Yelling at staff. Hectoring reporters. Even failing to disclose thousands of dollars in gifts from a political donor which led to his seven-count felony conviction.
"I use my temper. I don't lose my temper," Stevens said once when defending his thuggish approach.
And to hear Stevens' Senate colleagues during their tributes, there is still good in him, too. Like Darth Vader and his suit, Stevens just shrouds it behind his Incredible Hulk ties and glowering demeanor.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-KS, said that under Stevens "great, gruff facade" is a teddy bear.
"Here is a passionate, caring, wise, and yes, a man with a very good sense of humor," he said.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-CT, said that he and his wife once concluded that Stevens is whom they would call if a crisis arose in the middle of the night.
"This is a good an honorable man," said Lieberman.
At the end of the speeches, Stevens finally left the Senate chamber only to run one final gauntlet of reporters on his way to the elevator.
CNN's Lisa Desjardins asked Stevens what it was like to hear the tributes from his colleagues.
Stevens said it was "heartwarming" but described it as "one that has a bottomless pit. And I'm leaving that's very hard. I don't want to puddle up here in front of God and everybody."
A rare glimpse of Stevens' softer side. One that he rarely flashed when he stalked the halls of the United States Senate. Luke Skywalker would have been proud.
FOX News' Chad Pergram has won an Edward R. Murrow Award the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.