"Tasmanian Devil, Yosemite Sam," these are just two nicknames that former colleagues fondly called the late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, during his decades-long tenure in the Senate. Back home, they called him, "Uncle Ted." He was a benefactor to many and brought so much to his tiny state, to its most rural areas, and indeed - he was instrumental in the fight for Alaska's statehood.
The feisty firebrand who fought harder than just about anyone for his state, for the military -- as a World War II veteran (Army Fighting Tigers!), and for maritime issues (including oil and gas industry interests), was a force of nature.
Some might call him "gruff," and indeed he could be. Covering him was always interesting, for sure.
As a young journalist many years ago, I was asked to cover a defense appropriations bill, aka: Stevens' baby. I ventured up to the diminutive Stevens as he was charging to the floor, and remember thinking, "How bad could this be?" I ventured a simple question about an amendment to strip out a drilling (ANWR) provision, and the senator nearly took my head off. It was his provision. "Over my dead body!" I still remember him shouting.
Later, I realized he wasn't really shouting at me, personally. But with his signature Hulk (Hogan) neck tie on, as was his custom in any spending bill debate on the Senate floor, he was quite a formidable presence to me at the time. And he repeated that threat to his colleagues many times, trying to open up drilling in the refuge.
He would dress down reporters if you didn't know your facts, but he would also carry on a healthy conversation when you did. When he did rhetorically charge at you, it was never really nasty. It was more rapid-fire and slightly stunning. Many a time he would thunder through the capitol in his MBT's (his doc told him he needed to work on strengthening his stomach muscles or he would have back trouble), his pace barely matched by the reporters who relentlessly covered him. He would be barking answers to questions, and reporters would be straining just to keep up and get his comments down.
Stevens was never terribly fond of the press. For years, we who cover the capitol wanted a camera for interviews just off the Senate floor, and boy did Stevens fight it -- especially after one of my colleagues mounted a bit of a sneak attack with a camera at one end of a corridor and a microphone with a reporter who was at the other end with the senator. Stevens was hopping mad when the video suddenly appeared, and all chances of that camera went out the window.
During his trial, we had a running stakeout outside his office. He never shied away. In fact, one day, I was the only reporter there. He popped out of his office and proceeded to put his arm around me and say, "Hello!" He just grinned and said "hello" again as I tried to ask serious questions, and he threw in a "Are you having a nice day?" for good measure. That clip actually made the "Moment of Zen" on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.
Stevens was later cleared of all charges, but it was too late. His fate was sealed in the election in 2008 that brought in a Democrat, Mark Begich, to replace him. In a remarkable twist of irony, Begich's own father died in a plane crash a number of years back, as did Stevens' first wife. Flying is virtually the only mode of transportation around much of Alaska.
Stevens was certainly beloved by his colleagues, though, and perhaps none more so than his best friend, Sen. Dan Inouye, D-Hawaii. Indeed, Stevens was Inouye's best man at his wedding in 2008, and in a statement Tuesday, said, "I have lost my brother."
When Stevens went through his legal troubles in 2008, nearly everyone in the Senate stood by him. Inouye even testified at Stevens' trial, speaking about their instant friendship stemming back to the 1960's and their shared WWII experience.
"I have never known him to lie," Inouye said. "I can assure you his word is good enough to take to the bank."
And the bipartisan outcry of sadness continued pouring in on Tuesday once it was confirmed that Stevens had died.
Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate Minority Leader, who served with Stevens for years on the Appropriations Committee, said Tuesday, "He was a force to be reckoned with, and we will miss him greatly."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, compared Stevens to John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and Ronald Reagan, and said, "Last night, Alaska lost a hero and I lost a dear friend. The thought of losing Ted Stevens, a man who was known to business and community leaders, Native chiefs and everyday Alaskans as ‘Uncle Ted,' is too difficult to fathom."
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., also a member of the spending panel, said, "I took a trip to Alaska with Ted in 2007 and quickly found his fingerprints in every corner of the state - from Alaska's largest cities to the most remote Native villages. Ted always said, ‘To hell with politics. Do what is best for Alaska.' He never apologized for fighting for his state, and Alaska is better for it today."
Moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, recalled, "Maine will always be grateful to Senator Stevens for his landmark legislation that bears his name - the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. I was pleased to work closely with Senator Stevens on the most recent reauthorization of our nation's most indispensable fisheries law before he retired from the institution he served for so long. From the 300 year-old fishing villages in Downeast Maine to remote Aleutian Island outposts, we will always be grateful to Senator Stevens who was duty bound by a commitment to sustain both fish and fishermen."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who worked with Stevens for 34 years on the Appropriations Committee, said, "He was a tough negotiator and a savvy legislator. But as I told him again last month, he was an old-school senator. He always kept his word to me and to other senators. In moments of legislative battle he would come onto the floor wearing his Hulk tie, and he would growl and act like a bulldog. But then he would spot friends on the floor and give a wink and a grin. I will miss him."
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., lamented, "Ted Stevens' tough outward demeanor masked his loyalty, big heart and love for his fellow man. We shall not see the likes of this most unique man again."
And the releases just continue to pour in, as members are spread out for the month-long summer recess.
It is safe to say, he will be missed by many. His former staffers, according to one, spoke by phone when news broke that the senator was on the downed plane, conferring with updates.
One said of his death, "I am just crushed. This is too hard to believe." The staffer had just seen the senator last week, describing him as fit and loving his life as a sometimes consultant. Another staffer said, "I cannot even tell you how kind he was. Most people didn't even know it. He was generous to a fault to the people he truly loved. I cannot imagine him not being here anymore."