Former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican senator in history, died in a plane crash in Alaska, a Stevens family spokesman confirmed to the Associated Press Tuesday. Stevens represented Alaska in the Senate from 1968 to 2009. He was 86.
Stevens was one of nine people aboard a single-engine plane that went down near Dillingham, Alaska, Monday night, killing five. Former NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe was also on the flight. O'Keefe once served as secretary of the Navy under President George H.W. Bush and worked as a staff member on Stevens' Senate Appropriations Committee for eight years. The AP reported that O'Keefe survived the crash, along with his son, who was also on board.
According to the Anchorage Daily News, the flight with Stevens and O'Keefe was en route to Agulowak Lodge near Lake Aleknagik when it went down. A plane flying overhead spotted the wreckage around 7 pm. Although the Alaska National Guard dispatched rescue crews shortly thereafter, inclement weather made it difficult for the Guard to reach the victims and survivors.
In a sad coincidence, Stevens had been involved in at least one serious plane crash before. In 1978, he was on a Learjet that crashed at Anchorage National Airport, killing five people, including his wife, Ann. The airport in Anchorage has since been named in Stevens' honor.
As news of Stevens' loss spread, congressional leaders and friends of the late senator sent words of sadness and condolence to his family. President Obama said Stevens "devoted his career to serving the people of Alaska and fighting for our men and women in uniform." Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska's senior senator and a protege of Stevens, said the idea of losing him "is too difficult to fathom." Longtime friend Sen. Daniel Inoye (D-Hawaii) simply said, "I have lost my brother."
Ted Stevens was born in Indiana in 1923, where he lived through the Great Depression with his father and sister. He later moved to California to attended high school and UCLA for college. After serving in the Chinese theater during World War II, Stevens attended Harvard Law School on the G.I. bill and moved to Washington, D.C. to work as a lawyer. He married his first wife, Ann, and the couple moved to the frontier territory of Fairbanks, Alaska, where Stevens went to work for a local law firm.
After a stint as U.S. attorney in Fairbanks, Stevens moved back to Washington to work for President Dwight Eisenhower's Interior Department when the agency began outlining the future of Alaska's statehood. Stevens fought to expand the scope and importance of the soon-to-be state and later called working on Alaska's statehood one of the great honors of his life.
Stevens then moved home to Alaska and eventually became the speaker of Alaska's new statehouse. In 1968, he was appointed to represent Alaska in the U.S. Senate. He went on to win reelection seven times and serve in the Senate for 40 years.
"Working to help Alaska achieve its potential has been and will continue to be my life's work," Stevens said in 2008 as he looked back on his Senate career. "My motto around here has been, 'To hell with politics, just do what's right for Alaska.' I have tried every day to live up to those words."
Over the course of his four decades in Washington, Stevens rose from the chamber's most junior member to become its most senior, taking the post of president pro-tem, a role that put Stevens third in line to the presidency.
At various times in his career, Stevens was the Republican whip, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and the chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, the Rules Committee, the Government Affairs Committee, the Commerce Committee and the Appropriations Committee.
It was his role on the last committee -- the Appropriations Committee -- where Stevens defined his Senate career for better and for worse. As he sent billions of federal dollars back to his growing state for roads, hospitals, schools, and all manner of infrastructure, Stevens was criticized outside of Alaska for indulging in gluttonous pork-barrel spending at the expense of American taxpayers.
In the years that Stevens sat at the head of the panel, Alaska had the highest amount of federal spending per capita of any state in the union.
In addition to his prolific support for Alaska, Stevens was known in the Senate both for his explosive temper and kind demeanor with Senate support staff. Although he served in the highest levels of the Republican leadership, he also maintained extremely close friendships with Democrats including Sens. Ted Kennedy, Robert Byrd and Inoye, his closest friend whom he also called "my brother."
Despite his reputation as an occasional grump, on days when he felt he needed to pass a particular bill, Stevens often wore a lucky necktie adorned with cartoons of the Incredible Hulk that he would show off to visitors to the Senate.
Stevens' distinguished Senate career ended amid a cloud of scandal in 2008, when he lost his eighth bid for re-election two weeks after a federal jury convicted him of failing to report gifts and home renovations on his Senate disclosure reports. Stevens steadfastly denied that he had done anything wrong and in 2009, the Obama administration vacated all charges against the former senator based on what Attorney General Eric Holder called "prosecutorial misconduct."
The man who won Stevens' seat, Mark Begich, is the son of Alaska's former congressman, Nick Begich. The elder Begich also died in a plane crash when his plane disappeared over the Gulf of Alaska with House Majority Leader Hale Boggs on board.
When Stevens delivered his farewell speech on the Senate floor in 2008, his voice wavered as he warned the senators who had gathered for the speech, "I really am having a difficult time articulating my feelings today. If I puddle up a little bit, I hope I'll be excused."
"Home is where there heart is," Stevens said. "If that is so, then I have two homes. One is right here in this chamber and the other is in my beloved state of Alaska. I must leave one to return to the other."
Ted Stevens is survived by his wife, Catherine, and six children.