Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Always a Local Angle

In 1968 I was in Anchorage looking for a summer job and also for a way to avoid the adulthood seemingly implicit in having graduated from the University. Word spread through the small hostel where I was staying that a nearby bookstore had free doughnuts and coffee. With my usual gift for decorum I was down there in a flash, downing beignette after beignette. The occasion for the freebies was that a Republican candidate for senator was signing books he had "written" with a ghostwriter.

What I knew about Alaska politics was that in 1964 its distinguished Senator, Ernest Gruening, had been one of only two Senators to vote against Lyndon Johnson's Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The Resolution was a response to reports of North Vietnamese attacks on the destroyer USS Maddox. It quickly became clear that the reports were false, but the Resolution, authorizing Johnson to fight the Vietnam War, was not repealed until 1973. To me, a Berkeley Bolshevik, this made Gruening a hero. Sadly the voters of Alaska thought otherwise.

I had assumed that Gruening had voted "no" both out of conscience and also because he had a safe seat. Running against an incumbent with a safe seat is the definition of a crank candidate. That is who I assumed the Anchorage businessman with the fake book and the real doughnuts was.

Out of curiosity and to draw attention away from just how many doughnuts I was downing, I got into a conversation with the would-be Senator. Which quickly became a debate. It was and is my judgment that I easily trounced the candidate on every issue we discussed. He was sputtering. I knew well enough that I was a 21-year-old loudmouth fresh out of college, and that anybody who could not handle me easily did not belong in any elected position, let alone in Washington. But doughnuts are doughnuts and they were on his tab, not mine.

The election was won by a Democrat who beat Gruening in the primary, Mike Gravel. On December 11, 1968 the other Alaska Senator, Bob Bartlett died. On December 24 the Republican governor appointed Mr. Doughnuts to the remainder of Bartlett's term.

His name was Ted Stevens. He is now the longest serving member of the US Senate, formerly the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, currently its ranking Republican, and has just been indicted on corruption charges.

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