WASHINGTON — Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska ended his four-decade congressional career Thursday, ushered out by his Senate colleagues with a dignity not shown by jurors in his corruption trial or by the voters in his home state, who declined to return him to Washington for an eight term.
His colleagues offered a 90-minute tribute to the Republican senator, whose mark on Alaska predates statehood but whose imprint on the Senate is just as legendary.
Few mentioned his conviction or loss in the elections, referring obliquely — but regretfully — to his setbacks. Their remarks came the day after Stevens conceded his Senate race to Democratic Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.
His colleagues described Stevens, 85, as a man whose history is intertwined with that of the state of Alaska. Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in Senate history, has been a senator since 1968. He chaired the powerful Appropriations Committee, and for two decades oversaw U.S. military spending. A legendary appropriator, he's best known for the billions of dollars in federal money he took home to Alaska.
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"I think it is safe to say, without any fear of contradiction, that no senator in the history of the United States has ever done more for his state than Senator Ted Stevens," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate minority leader. "Alaska would not be what it is today were it not for him."
Helping to achieve Alaska's potential as it transformed from an impoverished U.S. territory to a rich oil-producing state was his "life's work," Stevens said.
"Where there was nothing but tundra and forest, today there are now airports, roads, ports, water and sewer systems, hospitals, clinics, communications networks, research labs and much, much more," he said. "Mr. President, Alaska was not 'Seward's Folly.' "
Republican senators trickled into the Senate chambers just before Stevens began speaking at 11 a.m. Most of his Republican colleagues sat in on portions of the tribute, but only a small group of Democratic senators attended: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Stevens' closest friend in the Senate, Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.
During the tribute, Stevens' wife, Catherine, and his daughter Beth sat in the front row of the upper gallery, surrounded by nearly 100 friends and staffers. Dozens more crowded in the seats lining the Senate chambers.
As Stevens concluded his remarks, many in the gallery and all the senators and aides on the floor of the Senate offered a standing ovation. Many of his staffers and friends walked out of the Senate chambers with red-rimmed eyes, dabbing at their tears.
While they clapped, Stevens sat. Then he stood, shaking hands with the longest-serving U.S. senator in history, Byrd, and the top two leaders of the Senate, Reid and McConnell. Finally, Stevens embraced Inouye, whom he called "his brother" during his speech.
Reid made no mention of how he'd publicly called on Stevens to step down after his conviction, and had warned him that were he to return for another term, his felon status would prompt a move by his fellow senators to expel him from their midst.
Inouye acknowledged that the Alaska senator's recent history has been "heartbreaking." However, that's done nothing to diminish their affection for each other, said Inouye, who testified as a character witness at Stevens' trial.
"I thank you for your four decades of friendship," he told Stevens.
As his colleagues paid tribute, Stevens sat comfortably in one of the chambers' sumptuous leather chairs, resting with an ease he'd lacked during the five weeks this fall when he faced a federal jury on corruption charges. There, he appeared shrunken and diminished, hidden by an oversized table in the middle of the federal courtroom.
In the Senate on his final day, however, Stevens' words and actions were evocative of his time as a lion of the chamber. He appeared humble, yet fully conscious of his place in the history of his state and his nation, and he told fellow senators that he continues to marvel at his rise from hardscrabble origins in Depression-era Indiana and California to his 1968 appointment to the Senate.
"I really must pinch myself to fully understand that I'm privileged to speak on the floor of the United States Senate," Stevens said. "Coming from the boyhood that I had, I could never even have dreamed to be here today."
Stevens, who was convicted Oct. 27 on seven counts of failing to disclose gifts and thousands of dollars in home renovations from a powerful political contributor, had just a week to campaign for re-election. He lost his re-election bid Tuesday in the final ballot count, and says he'll return to Alaska.
He made just one mention of his conviction during his farewell remarks, saying that he doesn't look back much but he hopes that his appeals will clear him one day of the corruption conviction.
"I still see the day when I can remove the cloud that currently surrounds me," he said. He didn't say whether he'd seek a pardon from President George W. Bush.
Stevens sounded one final defiant note, reminiscent of the man who donned an "Incredible Hulk" necktie whenever he needed to fight the biggest battles in Washington for Alaska. His motto, he reminded his colleagues, always was "to hell with politics, just do what is right for Alaska. And I tried every day to live up to those words."
Then, Stevens uttered his final words on the Senate floor: "I yield the floor for the last time."
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