Stanley Kutler: Remembering Ted Stevens

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Stanley Kutler is the author of Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes.] Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), as Ed Sullivan might have said, has been a really big show in Washington. The now-ranking Republican, and sometime-Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he (in tandem with his Democratic counterpart, Robert Byrd (D-WV) has controlled the appropriations process through much of his forty-year tenure. Reports credit him with directing billions of dollars to his native state. He should be remembered (along with Byrd) as the Father(s) of all earmarks - what in another day was called"pork," and which for much of our history consisted of rivers, harbors, and highway benefits. But reputable histories of"pork" will not find many"Bridges to Nowhere."

Stevens' future biographer will only look with awe and amazement at the unbridled, unchecked power the man enjoyed and exercised. Stevens should be the poster boy for the mob that Newt Gingrich led to power in 1994.

But give the man his due. Inadvertently, in at once the best and worst of his moments, he exposed the sham, hypocrisy, and yes, even audaciousness, of that rule. The impeachment trial of President William Jefferson Clinton offered Stevens his special moment. Clinton deserves our scorn in many ways; we can point to his policy and governing failures - q.v., Iraq, health-care, etc. Too often, we saw the"Slick Willie" his detractors deplored. What he did not deserve was his impeachment and trial in 1998. The blatant partisan vote for impeachment was a foregone conclusion in the House - and doomed it to failure.

Whatever the inevitable outcome, the Republican majority laid bare the ugly rancor of partisan politics. Tom DeLay's (R-TX) muscling of Peter King (R-NY) and a few other"moderate," eastern Republicans who fully anticipated the folly of the majority's madness, marked the measure of his pernicious and abusive powers. The Senate Democrats' calculated decision to defend Clinton insured that the Republicans would not reach the requisite 2/3rds vote. Many Democrats no doubt were aroused more by the Republicans' vindictiveness than any respect for Clinton. Many Senators treated the House charges with disdain, often bordering on contempt, much to the House Managers' dismay and scorn. Who can forget Henry Hyde's (R-IL) pitiful whining and self-righteous posturing? The Republicans ultimately failed to gain even a majority in favor of either article of impeachment.

Senator Stevens, no stranger to partisan battles, offered the most revealing insight into senatorial minds and the prevailing nonsense. Stevens voted to acquit Clinton on the charge of perjury, but voted guilty on the obstruction of justice count. That bifurcated oddity merely was a" courtesy" to the Managers. Stevens had no illusions. The world remained a dangerous place, and he readily admitted he would not vote to remove the President if he knew his vote would decisively affect the outcome. With remarkable candor, he said that Clinton had"not brought that level of danger to the nation which, in my judgment, is necessary to justify such an action." He clearly acknowledged that his guilty vote on the second count only was a gesture, saying he would not have done so if"such action would remove the President from office."

Stevens's action exposed the Republicans' capacity for mischief. Perhaps he correctly gauged the national mood; his statement, however, more reflects a man who did not want blood on his hands. The Republicans' mindless personal hatred for the President drove the whole affair, and it was not a serious constitutional matter. The Senate certainly had its share of Clinton-haters. Trent Lott in 1974 rejected impeachment for Richard Nixon as unthinkable; he had no trouble, however, applying it to Clinton. The usual suspects, Phil Gramm (R-TX), Jesse Helms (R-NC), Rick Santorum (R-PA), et al, followed in lockstep. But Republican defections such as Stevens's diminished any semblance of respectability for the charges.

Our media loves to titillate us with scandals, bridges to nowhere, and sexual peccadilloes, among other relatively inconsequential events. moments. Stevens's gesture went unnoticed. Nevertheless, he laid bare the partisan ugliness and its hypocrisy, as well, and his own actions underlined that reality. Every scoundrel has his moment.

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