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Winter 2000

Mr. Stevens Goes to Washington

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While a student at UCLA, Ted Stevens had no inkling of where his life might take him. Five decades later he's on top of the world (literally) as the senior senator from Alaska and one of the most powerful men on Capitol Hill

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By David Whitney
photography: Claudio Vasquez
Stephen Nowers, Anchorage Daily News


If you ever visit the nation's Capitol and see a man stalking the halls with the snarling face of the Tazmanian Devil leaping from his chest, that would be Ted Stevens. And you can be certain that someone is going to have a very bad day.

As a chief architect of federal spending, Sen. Ted Stevens '47 of Alaska often has to knock heads to get the work done. It's a high-stress job requirement from which he does not shy away, a fact that has earned him a reputation as a grouch and a bully.

It is a rep that he relishes. After 32 years in Washington, he's still a roll-up-the-sleeves kind of guy who doesn't at all mind climbing down into the pit and getting dirty, if that's what it takes.

THE BLUSTER AND GRIT of legislative life is a long way away from what Stevens fondly recalls as "the halcyon days" after World War II, when the young Army Air Corps veteran was surfing the Southern California waves and making the grade at UCLA. Back then, Stevens was a brash political science student without a clue about where the future might take him.

He had no idea that the advice of his constitutional law professor, J.A.C. Grant, to pursue law because he "had a knack for it" would lead him to the frontiers of the Alaska Territory as a federal prosecutor breaking up prostitution rings and sending bank robbers to prison. Or that the infant state would later reward him by sending him to the U.S. Senate, where he now is Alaska's fiercest advocate and benefactor.

Those were "great days," Stevens reminisces from his chair in what must be one of the most magnificent seats of power in the Western world, an office suite adorned with hand-painted frescoes and glimmering chandeliers with a view down the Mall toward the Washington Monument.

But that was then and this is now, and Congress isn't always a nice, friendly club, especially in the early fall when the 13 spending bills that keep the government rolling have to get out of Stevens' committee and be signed into law by the president.

Stevens -- the only Bruin in the U.S. Senate, where he is the sixth most-senior member -- is the no-nonsense chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Virtually every dollar of every check the federal government writes has his fingerprints all over it.

It's not an easy job. If it's not budget hawks like Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain taking shots at Stevens for sending too many of your hard-earned dollars north to his home state, then it's Democrats harping about misplaced spending priorities of the Republican Party, to which Stevens belongs.

Some days all this takes a little more strength than he can muster on his own.

And that's when the ugliest, most feared piece of cloth on Capitol Hill, his Tazmanian Devil tie, comes out of the closet. Stevens puts it on and he becomes "one mean, miserable SOB" -- the very words he used to describe himself when he first took up the chairman's gavel four years ago and pounded the committee to order.

"When I wear ties like this on the floor, people understand I really mean business," Stevens says.

That's the jazz from Taz.

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