by Karla Fetrow
Alaska has a flair for scandalous politicians. The eruption into Congressional uproars and electrifying discourse convened the first day territorial statesman, Ernest Gruening, stepped into the halls of the United States assembly and delivered his first appeal for Alaskan Statehood. It continued to astonish and impact the legislative branch during the investigations of the Watergate scandal when Nixon’s mighty men were shivering in their boots or being sent to pea farms, when Senator Mike Gravel revealed on public television the contents of documents concerning nuclear hazards in the work place and environmental pollution that had been declared top secret, declaring America had the right to know. The media reeled under last year’s vice-presidency candidate’s choice of a rookie woman governor from Alaska, Sarah Palin. Yet, perhaps no one has been as seeped in controversy as Senator Ted Stevens.
When the axe began grinding away at the Alaskan Legislature, the federal government bringing up one representative after another on corruption charges of accepting bribes from major oil companies and developers, the entire groundwork for the legal system shook. The hatchet path, which curiously did not include any of the lobbyists it takes to complete a tangle except private contractor Bill Allen, eventually carved its way to the house of the King. He was tried, and found guilty of accepting gifts extending over two hundred fifty thousand dollars for renovations to his house in Girdwood. Six months later, he overturned the conviction with an appeal to the Supreme Court. Without elaborating further, one Justice stated to the news media, “this is supposed to be about fair judgment not winning or losing.”
The over-turn was based on the prosecutions’ with holding of evidence that would have contradicted the testimony of the industrial complex fall guy, Bill Allen, and would cast Stevens in a more favorable light. Finally understanding this brilliant clause in Constitutional Law that the prosecution has the obligation to turn over all evidence of their findings at the request of the defense, former representatives, Pete Kott and Vic Kohring are out on bail while they file similar appeals.
There is a great deal of difference between our aging Senator and the average legislator. Ted Stevens understood the law. His first occupation was as the Attorney General under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It wasn’t Gruening’s eloquent speech, nor the territory’s elected Governor Eagan, that crafted Alaska into Statehood. It was Ted Stevens tenacious handwork in constructing boundaries for federal jurisdiction and civilian populace that would be agreeable with Eisenhower’s vision of a strong defense system.
In retrospect, one might say, Ted Stevens was highly motivated by favoring Alaskan Statehood. He already had stakes there and had invested in attorney business practices. However, within this easy chair reflection of hind sight, you’d also have to say he was either a very bold gambler or had an extremely visionary mind.
The Alaska of the nine-teen fifties was not the sort of place people generally wanted to invest in. Beside the harsh climate, it had a very small and very poor population. The major industry was fishing. The capital gained from fur bearing animals, gold and timber had already been squirreled away into U.S. coffers. Anchorage began, at the end of World War II, as a tent city; the pioneers into a new life bravely enduring the ocean front winters in army canvas. It was truly the wild, wild north, where communities struggled to create a law among themselves in the midst of lawlessness. In the background, just across a narrow strait of water, loomed the invisible curtain of the Cold War. For many who were struggling to take root in this undeveloped land, Statehood was a do or die concept. Ted Stevens led to the forefront the doers.
Ted Stevens efforts made it easier for U.S. citizens to travel through airports, waterways or across Canada. Under the Department of Transportation, he channeled funds for the maintenance of the Alcan and the Richardson Highway, the early lifeline of road travel between the Alaskan populace and the Continental U.S. Schools were built, health services provided under the early influence of Senator Stevens. Wildlife preservation laws were effected and fish hatcheries developed. Ted Stevens took care of the Alaskan family.
These were times when everybody knew everybody. Like most of our early legislators, he often attended school proms, or community sponsored balls. He had a very winning personality, smiling at everyone he met, knowing people by their first names, dancing with all the ladies, from the young girls to the grandmas, retaining a joking camaraderie with the men; miners, fishermen, lumberjacks and office workers. We, who were very young and knew nothing of politics or ambition, called him Uncle Teddy.
There is much about this Uncle Ted who became King Ted, with the transition of Alaska into the pipeline years, that has caused public outrage. The state that had been a little mouse in the seat of power, was suddenly a lion. It had millions of dollars in revenue. The slippery climb of carpet baggers and black gold fever began, people arriving in droves to catch a little of the burgeoning windfall. Through it all, Ted Stevens remained one of our most stable and dependable Senators, cautiously enacting bills that would retain some of the vast liquid assets in State coffers, and retaining an interest in Alaskan communities.
In 1990, two years following a fatal car accident that killed my common law Mexican husband and another passenger, I returned to my native home in Alaska. Miraculously, both my small children and I had survived the accident, although the impact on my son had been serious. His left mandible had been fractured in two places and his collarbone broken. He remained in intensive care for three months before he was released. When the wires were removed that held his broken jaw and chin together, it was discovered that the lower bone had melded over the top of the upper. He could not open his jaw. The Mexican specialists furrowed their brows in consternation, then told me frankly that if I could obtain a U.S. surgeon by returning to the United States, it would be the best thing for my son as they did not have the medical technology for performing the operation.
Back home, I explained my dilemma to the local health nurse who still belonged to that small town society where everybody knows everybody. She was immediately sympathetic. “The first thing you’ll have to do,” she told me, “is go on welfare. There is absolutely no way you’ll be able to raise the funds for an operation that is critically needed now.”
Critical was the right word. So far, my five year old son was able to continue to eat solids by shoving them through the gap in his broken front teeth. However, the new, permanent teeth would soon start creeping through and he would be restricted to nothing but liquids. I took my petition to the Anchorage Social Services. After reviewing my birth certificate and those of my children, they politely told me that my babies were not technically U.S. citizens, and that they would have to go through the process of naturalization.
This meant a six month routine of visits to the Office of Immigration. Each visit was begun by first taking a number, then waiting for four to six hours for a ten minute interview in which I was told there was still another official paper they would like to see. Becoming just a little impatient with my weekly, fruitless visits, I finally asked them, “before sending me out again, would you please itemize each and every document I must bring so we can get through this?” The immigration smiled pleasantly and announced, “that’s all. Congratulations. Your children are now officially naturalized citizens.”
My fresh, new documents in hand, with immigration photos that made the children look like preschool mafioso, I returned to the office of welfare to begin applications for my son’s medical needs. The case worker calmly looked over my evidence and said, “I don’t see any release forms from the father to take your children into a foreign country.”
“He’s dead,” I told her. “I don’t see how he can sign a release form.”
“State law requires that we find the non-supporting fathers and extract child payments from them.”
“One, he was Mexican. I don’t think our laws apply to him. Two, he’s dead. I don’t think he can pay anything.”
“We need to see a death certificate.”
I had the fresh scars from fifteen stitches at my left temple and at the corner of one eye from the accident. I barely remembered the entire incident, let alone the hospital we had been transported to, somewhere deep in the heart of Mexico City. “I have no idea where you would find the death certificate,” I admitted.
“Then we can’t help you,” said the case worker.
I had no recourse left except to appeal to our legislators. Most of them expressed notes of condolences and sympathy but didn’t see how they could possibly help me with my case. Senator Sam Cotton, however, who had grown up in the same community I had, knew exactly what to do. He called the department of welfare and told them they absolutely would process my case and begin giving my son medical attention immediately. Senator Stevens had ideas of his own. He wanted a personal interview with me. I explained to him the situation and showed him my son with his paralyzed jaw. He called the welfare agency and told them not only would they begin giving my son medical attention immediately, they would pay retroactive funds in child support benefits, beginning with the month in which I had made my first application and been denied.
How the system scrambled when the lion roared. My son received the best medical surgeon in Anchorage. His jaw was re-broken, unlocked and reset. It was a series of excruciating and painful visits for the young boy, but when it was over, he could talk again, smile again and eat with voracious appetite. The first thing he wanted to do, once the jaw had healed, was to eat a hotdog. He grinned from ear to ear as he stuffed half of it into his mouth at one time. There were other issues that never got resolved, such as another series of small operations to keep the jaw from developing crookedly, but it was considered cosmetic surgery and the State refused to pay. Neither my son nor I felt the cosmetics were overly important, anyway. He was a normal boy with a new lease on life. He doesn’t mind that his jaw is a little crooked. He sees it as a reminder of just how lucky he is.
Over the years, I’ve had a number of disagreements with some of Ted Stevens’ policies, many of them the result of a generational difference in point of view. I’ve never questioned however, that his primary concern was for the well being of the Alaskan people. Although he was found guilty of corruption charges two weeks before the 2008 general elections, he lost his crown as King by a narrow margin. There were still enough people who remembered the good things he had brought to Alaska; roads, equitable trade, outreach to the communities and villages; and an improved standard of living.
This was the legacy of his past. He belongs to an era that is dying out; one that built its foundation on the aftermath of war, saw the boom of prosperity, and the teetering brinks of its limits. His last act, as the dethroned king, was to show the people the fallacy of our modern court system; a court that has assigned you guilty as charged before you’ve had a chance to proclaim your innocense; a court that with withholds evidence of your good character and good deeds in order to influence prejudicial decisions. In our society of paper trails, files and numbers that has nothing to do with human faces and their situations, I think about this man who had once been a giant in the chambers of legislative representation and how he, with his busy life and his powerful agenda took the time for a little humanity. Without that quality of kindness, we have failed as leaders, as society, as a people. The King has been removed from his throne, but he hasn’t been dishonored and I will not judge him.