ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- I am on a ship cruising around Alaska this week, hoping fabulous natural grandeur might distract me from the election, but it isn't working. Every morning I go online and peruse three newspapers for the political news, no Olympics or pennant race, no story about the poor self-image of a famous rich person.
It is politics 24/7 now. I haven't looked at the arts section for months. I love the arts section -- those generic profiles of actors, the story about orchestras trying to attract a more diverse audience by hiring more minority players, the review of a performance artist who sits motionless in a chair while humming and the reviewer talks about its lyric angularity. I love that stuff, but I'm off the arts for a while.
I really thought grandeur would take my mind off it: craggy mountains, deep forests, enormous glaciers, dramatic waterfalls, rocky coastlines, sunsets, that sort of thing. But in my mind, glorious scenery is associated with inspirational posters that say "You Are Only As Successful As You Dare To Dream" or words to that effect. Inspirational cards people send you that say "Every Triumph Begins With A Single Footstep" and "The World Is A Canvas on which We Paint Our Masterpiece."
No, it is not and I am not 13 years old. I didn't just fall off the potato wagon. Anything worthwhile you do in this world involves hard work and a lot of boredom and you are never sure if it's good enough. Dreaminess has nothing to do with it.
What's interesting about Alaska isn't the scenery so much as the people who came here to live amongst it. They are a hardy lot. One winter in Fairbanks with 20 hours of darkness a day and St. Francis would've been strangling those birds, not preaching to them. Winter in Juneau is like living in a coal mine. The Aleutians are utter desolation: If that is grandeur, then give me an RV on a parking lot in Waco.
No wonder Alaska is a state for curmudgeons. Tea party types. Cranky libertarians. When they look at Mount Denali, they don't think of spiritual things, they see a government conspiracy to conceal the fact that there is gold in there and caverns full of emeralds.
I once sat at a black-tie dinner across from Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who was a curmudgeon of the first water. He sat and glowered at me and was not impressed by my attempts to make conversation. He knew that I was in public radio and that marked me as a scavenger at the public trough. His wife Catherine, sitting next to me, was gracious and funny and we chattered for a couple hours about children and Washington and museums, and she told me that Ted didn't like formal dinners, which clearly he didn't. In the course of the evening, I came to admire him for being so determinedly unpleasant. You never see this in an elected official: smarm is the norm, a politician without a grin is like a pitcher without a change-up.
Ted Stevens was an honest man. He was out to serve Alaska and I had nothing to offer in that regard, so nuts to me. I have admired him ever since. In 2008 he was indicted on corruption charges that were bogus but a jury convicted him; he was narrowly defeated for re-election, after which his conviction was thrown out on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct. It was a miserable ordeal for an honest old man. He died in a plane crash near Dillingham two years later. The Anchorage airport is named for him.
My fellow passengers on this ship are off whale-watching, hiking on glaciers, climbing mountains, watching the salmon swim upstream to their deaths. In the tradition of Ted Stevens, I am sitting in my cabin reading the newspapers. He was of a breed of moderate Republicans of impeccable integrity who are in short supply today. He was too flinty to run for president. The guy who is running this year puts on a cantankerous act but he has no soul and no idea what he's talking about and he lies a lot.
Ted Stevens was who he was: He looked at a forest and he saw lumber. He fought hard for oil drilling on the North Slope and that oil money made Alaska the Republican state it is. I'm an old liberal and as such am in favor of preservation of wilderness. I am also glad not to be out there in it.
Go sit on your thumb, Henry Thoreau, and leave me alone.