Until a couple months ago, did the state of Alaska ever cross your radar? If it did, it was likely in the context of some woodsy news-of-the-weird story about a lumberjack mating with a spotted owl. Its chief exports were cute polar-bear screen savers and Northern Exposure.
Those, my friends, were the days of innocence. Little did we denizens of the Lower 48 realize how truly sleazy it is up in the great wild North. Thankfully, the Zeitgeist has since foisted upon us two specimens from the frosty Frontier State: one who looks like she failed a Hooters-trainee program and one who looks like he escaped from a meat locker. Please welcome Sarah Palin and Ted "Pruneface" Stevens, the toxic tundra twins, worse advertisements for Alaska than the Iditatrod.
Palin's instability has been well-documented, from the innocuous (the Tourette's-like repetition of the word "maverick"; debating skills gleaned from the How to Be Miss USA 1959 handbook) to the pathologically disturbing (a grudge-holding capacity on par with Richard Nixon).
Stevens is scarier, if only because he's been swindling people since before Palin shot her first moose. The 84-year-old hottie (suggested campaign slogan, "I make John McCain look spry!") is the longest-serving Republican in the Senate — ever. How's that for an epitaph? He is the type of guy who'd discuss turn-of-the-century hookers with Henry Hyde; the sort of crusty windbag who just kept getting elected over and over again, becoming richer and richer and more and more arrogant. He was an expense-account-loving, pork-barrel-spending, back-slapping hypocrite for whom morals and hubris, after a fashion, simply didn't apply. Unchallenged power will do that to you. That and senility.
Taking care of business
Stevens has been frozen into the Alaskan landscape for eons (and I do mean frozen: the man's facial expressions change less frequently than Joan Rivers blinks) having served in the Senate for 40 years. Stevens once told an Anchorage reporter that "if a man took care of himself," he could live to be 120 years old. Apparently, "taking care of himself" meant free home renovations, sled dogs, stained-glass windows, and, um, a $2695 massage chair. All gifts from his friends in Big Oil. All unreported. Live long and prosper, Ted.
The good news is that, if Stevens does live another 30-some-odd years, he'll spend them in (hopefully) jail or (consolation prize) in disgrace, as he was convicted this past week on the seven felony counts he faced for failing to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in free gifts, which — in addition to the items above — also included a gas grill, leather furniture, and a fish statue. "I will fight this unjust verdict with every ounce of energy I have," he declared. If that's the case, let's hope the old-timer is talking about his own personal octogenarian energy, and not the collective metaphorical energy of Alaska's rotten-to-the-core oil industry.
Stevens's follies are cringe-worthy, even the lawful ones. According to the Anchorage Daily News, "Prosecutors showed that Stevens and his wife, Catherine, turned his professional staff into serfs who walked the dog, fed the cat, mowed the lawn, wrapped Christmas presents, returned overdue videos." Note to Ted: Madonna gets to have an entourage. Streisand gets to have an entourage. Noble politicians who claim to fight on behalf of the humble Alaskan everyman do not. (I can understand if you need someone to push your wheelchair, or perhaps spoon-feed you applesauce. But wrapping Christmas presents? Who do you think you are, Candy Spelling?)
Then there was that massage chair. Perhaps someone like, say, Lindsay Graham might need an expensive massage chair — I don't think he's ever been touched by a woman — but Stevens? With the long-suffering, devoted wife? For shame. Kinda makes you long for the days of Marion Barry smoking crack in a hotel room, then insisting "Bitch set me up!", doesn't it?
But the biggest misstep was Stevens's plot to festoon his Alaska domicile with more than $250,000 worth of improvements, more than doubling its size. (I think he got a raw deal from his interior decorator. Have you seen the photos? The Stevens Shangri-la looks like a Ponderosa Steakhouse.) The labor and materials were supplied by the now-shuttered oil-field service company VECO Corporation — as a gift to their dear friend. Meanwhile, Stevens claimed the renovations came out of his own pocket. Because, you know, it's easy to save money when other people buy your stained-glass windows and sled dogs.
Behind the slime
Lesser-known Alaskans also contributed to this drama: there's Bill Allen, former CEO of VECO, who pleaded guilty to bribery charges involving Alaska lawmakers last year. (Allen subsequently mangled his head in a motorcycle accident and now has difficulty speaking, though he still remained articulate enough to indict his former chum.) He and fellow company executive Richard Smith also pleaded guilty to federal extortion, conspiracy, and fraud charges, conceding that they wooed pliable Alaskans legislators with cash and job offers and illegally reimbursed their employees for political contributions. The politicians in question, former state representatives Pete Kott, Tom Anderson, and Vic Kohring (representing good ol' Wasilla) have been sentenced to prison. State senator John Cowdery and state representative Bruce Weyrauch are still awaiting trial.