As many Alaskans mourn their senatorial cash cow, let's not forget that Ted Stevens became a master crook sitting atop a cesspool of Republicrookery
"In the money-driven context of American politics, the perks of incumbency can transform into a sense of personal entitlement as V.I.P. back-slappers relentlessly donate and entreat their way into a grateful politician's inner circle."
-- from this morning's NYT editorial "A Senate Lion Brought Down"
Okay, so he's a crook, but he's our crook. Besides, he didn't steal from us. If anything, he stole for us. So why shouldn't he get a little for himself on the side?
This seems to be the attitude of many Alaskans faced with the loss of their cash-generating senior senator's Senate seniority, as reported in this morning's Washington Post:
Alaskans Fret About a Future Without Help From 'Uncle Ted'
By Karl Vick
ANCHORAGE, July 30 -- Alaska's vast landscape is littered with federally funded tributes to Sen. Ted Stevens's single-minded promotion of the state, from the brushed steel of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport to the $187 million that subsidizes air mail for the one-third of residents who live beyond the reach of roads.
In his almost 40 years in the Senate, the octogenarian Republican in many ways defined the shape of the Last Frontier, not least by using his perch on the Appropriations Committee to ensure that his state's tiny population remained the nation's richest in federal spending per capita. More than $9 billion arrived in Alaska from Washington in 2006, twice as much as a decade earlier.
So it was perhaps to be expected that many here greeted the news of Stevens's indictment on corruption charges as if they were condemned to a pauper's death, fearful that they will no longer be able to depend on the largess of "Uncle Ted." . . .
A third of Alaska's jobs can be traced to federal spending, according to the latest study by the University of Alaska's Institute of Social and Economic Research. Many spring from military expenditures that Stevens encouraged during decades of service on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees defense spending. . . .
The watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense said Wednesday that Stevens secured or played a significant role in 891 earmarks worth $3.2 billion to Alaska between 2004 and 2008. Divided among the state's 670,000 residents, the per capita figure of $4,872 is 18 times the national average of $263 over the same four years, the group said. . . .
It's understandable, then, that many of Uncle Ted's fellow Alaskans are standing by him, considering how much they stand to lose with his (now surely inescapable) fall.
For the rest of us, though, it's appropriate to view Uncle Ted's long-overdue fall-in-progress as an all-too-familiar cautionary tale. If you delve into any Alaskan history going back to and even before the campaign for statehood, you get an image of a very different Ted Stevens, one who might even be described as a crusading idealist, a far cry from the sinkhole of corruption he developed into.
This morning's New York Times editorial takes the most charitable imaginable approach, yet still gets this angle right:
A Senate Lion Brought Down
Any member of Congress should be able to see the larger lesson in the indictment of Senator Ted Stevens, the Alaskan patriarch accused of concealing more than $250,000 in home improvements and furnishings allegedly bestowed by the state's chief power broker.
Unfortunately, that lesson -- beware of favor-seekers bearing gifts -- strikes so directly to the heart of the back-scratching political culture of Washington that time and again lawmakers become inured to the risks and put their careers in jeopardy.
Mr. Stevens denies any corrupt behavior and insists that he paid for everything he received from William Allen, one of his state's dominant oil magnates until last year, when he admitted to bribing a half-dozen state politicians to get government favors. That will be up to a jury to decide. But Mr. Stevens's constituents have a right to wonder why their revered senator, a Republican who has served them fiercely for four decades, ever agreed to have his home richly upgraded by someone so obviously hunting for the inside track to politicians.
No bribery charge or quid pro quo is specified, which is always a difficult case for prosecutors to prove. Rather, Senate ethics violations are the core of the case, and this is as it should be. The senator is accused of concealing the alleged gifts from required disclosure to the public. At the same time, prosecutors say that Mr. Stevens "did use his official position and his office" to help Mr. Allen with oil deals ranging from Russia and Pakistan to special grants and contracts in Alaska.
In the money-driven context of American politics, the perks of incumbency can transform into a sense of personal entitlement as V.I.P. back-slappers relentlessly donate and entreat their way into a grateful politician's inner circle.
Voters are on to this downward spiral, even if too many lawmakers are in denial. Congress's esteem is at an all-time low, despite the spate of ethics reforms that helped bring the Democrats back to power in 2006. To its credit, the House is finally starting up a panel of outsiders to oversee its ethics; senators proudly rejected their august chamber's need for such an attempt to regain public trust.
In the case of the continuing Alaska investigation, it's revealing that an outside force -- an op-ed newspaper essay by a suspicious observer -- eventually triggered the federal raids that convicted state officials and indicted Mr. Stevens. Taxpayers should question whether government watchdogs would otherwise still be snoozing. In fact, statehouse lawmakers cited in the article first reacted by mockingly donning C.B.C. (Corrupt Bastards Club) baseball caps.
HUBRIS would have been the more appropriate logo. The tragedy in the indictment of Mr. Stevens is that overweening pride too easily befalls politicians.