Jewish World Review
August 17, 2010
/ 7 Elul, 5770
A Man in Full
The fatal air crash that took the life of Ted Stevens, who represented Alaska in the U.S. Senate for the longest time (from 1968 to 2009), wasn't the first one he'd been involved in.
The best way to understand the man may be to refer to an earlier crash he survived, although his wife didn't. How he handled, indeed surmounted, that crisis speaks to all the qualities that made Ted Stevens both the most cantankerous of opponents and the most loyal of allies in the Senate. It sums up the best of his traits -- courage, tenacity and a fundamental decency wedded to an indomitable will.
Once upon a time (June of 1997), the senator spoke of that earlier crash to a cub reporter who'd been sent to interview him, and who trembled at the prospect of bearding this lion of the Senate in his den of an office. That reporter, Ed Henry, now a senior White House correspondent for CNN, was moved to tell the story on hearing the news of Ted Stevens' death:
"I was working on a profile for Roll Call newspaper, and I was told by a former Senate aide that if I really wanted to explain Stevens to my readers I should try to get him to discuss that 1978 plane crash. It was obviously a seminal moment in his life, and yet he spoke about it rarely.
"Not wanting him to explode on me, I carefully noted to Stevens that while it must have been terrible to lose his wife, in an odd way it must have been even more awful to survive the crash that killed her. To my surprise, rather than snapping at me or avoiding the topic, Stevens was upfront about the guilt he felt.
"I think that's something a lot of people don't grasp," Stevens said. "It's one thing to survive your wife. It's another thing to survive the crash in which your wife was killed. It was a very traumatic period for me."
The senator went on to describe how he had had to break the news of their mother's death to all five of his college-age children just as they returned home happily anticipating the Christmas holiday. Then he got on a plane to Denver, Colorado.
"Why in the world would he fly again so quickly?" the reporter asked himself. "Stevens told me he decided that the only decent way to break the news to his 93-year-old father-in-law was to do it in person rather than just picking up the phone.''
The senator went on to tell the young reporter about that sad meeting. "You can't believe it," he said, "but my father-in-law looked at me and he said, 'Did you love my daughter?' I said, 'You know I did.' He said, 'Well, then, I want you to go and find another wife.' "
"Stevens briefly stopped the interview," Ed Henry remembers, "his eyes filling with tears, but then he continued about his father-in-law." The old man had told him: "You know, life has to go on and you've got to get a hold of yourself and make it go on." So the senator took his now motherless kids on a trip to Mexico, "and we sort of put our lives together."
Ted Stevens regularly had to put his life together, one test after another. After flying transports behind enemy lines during the Second World War to supply Chinese troops fighting the Japanese, dangerous missions for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal, he went on to become the longest-serving Republican senator in American history.
In his last time out, the senator was defeated for re-election by the narrowest of margins (a few thousand votes, a little over 1 percent of the vote) in the wake of an unjust conviction on corruption charges, a conviction that was overturned, with all charges dropped, after the truth came out: The real ethical lapse revealed by the senator's nine-month trial and ordeal was the prosecution's withholding the evidence that might have exonerated him. (What ever happened to those federal prosecutors, anyway? If the answer to that question is nothing much, then that's one more miscarriage of justice.)
The methods used to convict Ted Stevens, if only briefly, were more than questionable; the presiding judge called them "outrageous" once he learned the extent of the prosecutors' tricks -- and found the U.S. Justice Department in contempt. At one point, on hearing about an FBI interview that the prosecutors had kept from the defense, His Honor Emmet G. Sullivan looked the lawyers from the Justice Department in the eye and asked the obvious question: "How can the court have the confidence that the Public Integrity Section (of the Justice Department) has public integrity?" As it turned out, it didn't.
Ted Stevens' response to the news that he'd been cleared? It was a model of faith and restraint: "I always knew that the day would come when the cloud surrounding me would be removed. That day has finally come. It is unfortunate that an election was affected by proceedings now recognized as unfair. It was my great honor to serve the state of Alaska in the United States Senate for 40 years." The End. Once again he would move on and live his life. To the fullest.
One of his lawyers was more explicit about the injustice done an innocent man: "The jury verdict here was obtained unlawfully. The government violated the Constitution of the United States, federal criminal rules, and applicable case law in order to obtain this unlawful verdict. The misconduct of the prosecutors was stunning to me. Many prosecutors were involved and least one FBI agent. Not only did the government fail to provide evidence to the defense that the law required them to provide, but they created false testimony that they gave us and they actually presented false testimony in the courtroom."
If there is consolation in Ted Stevens' end, and there is, it's that he was just where he wanted to be -- in the wilds of his beloved Alaska -- doing just what he wanted to do, heading out on a fishing trip. It is good to know he lived long enough to see all charges against him dropped and his reputation restored. Even though the haters may still be trying to convict him without benefit of law. The smears that appeared in the press even after all the charges against him were dismissed do not constitute one of journalism's finest hours. But let it be noted on his death that Ted Stevens' own life was full of finest hours.
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