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Mr. Stevens Goes to Washington
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Winter 2000

Mr. Stevens Goes to Washington

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TRUTH BE TOLD, despite a reputation he works hard to perpetuate, Ted Stevens is not an unrelenting grouch and bully. He does, however, thrive on debate, and he loves to mix it up. He is most articulate when he is the most exercised. It's as if the blood flow doesn't hit his brain until he is in a lather over something.

This fall, for example, when President Clinton vetoed a spending measure, saying he could not "in good conscience sign a bill that funds the operations of the Congress and the White House before funding our classrooms, fixing our schools and protecting our workers," Stevens responded in classic froth: "He's in for it! I will not take a threat from the President of the United States. This is an open declaration of war against Congress."

Many people confuse Stevens' passion with anger, says his longtime friend Michael Phelps, UCLA's Norton Simon Professor, chair of the Department of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology, chief of the Division of Nuclear Medicine and director of the Crump Institute for Biological Imaging. But, he says, "when Ted hits the passion button, you better not be on the same street going the other way."

Phelps, the inventor of the PET scan, was introduced to Stevens through California industrialist and education reformer Norton Simon. He describes countless hours during which Stevens, Simon and he would debate lofty issues. There was one time, he recalls, when he and Stevens, who was in Los Angeles to speak to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, got into a discussion that stretched out for hours.

"He missed his talk at the VFW, and they never invited him back," Phelps laughs.

At age 77, Stevens loves a good joke, and he doesn't mind if it's a little naughty. Fishing is his passion, the one thing he'll make time for to relax. He's a wine connoisseur. And sometime Stevens, an exercise fanatic, simply refuses to act his age.

Stevens spent much of his youth with his aunt and uncle in Manhattan Beach, swimming and surfing in the chilly Pacific combers. (His favorite board is propped in the corner of his office in the Hart Senate Office Building, and among all the artifacts of public life that clutter his suite, it is the item Stevens seems to cherish most.) A few years ago, he and a boyhood friend, Russ Green, headed down to their old beach haunt for a little body surfing. The ocean was a bit rough, Stevens admits, but he and Green are good swimmers and they didn't think much about it. As they were bobbing in the waves, they soon noticed that the lifeguard had moved from his perch and planted himself at the water's edge, anxiously watching them.

Green's wife was furious that the lifeguard had gone on full-geezer alert, but Stevens, who worked his way through UCLA as a lifeguard, thought the scene was hilarious.

"I said that if I'd seen two old codgers going out in that kind of water, I probably would have told them to come in," he says, laughing uproariously.

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