Image: Ted Stevens and daughters
Mark Wilson  /  Getty Images
Former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens walks with is daughters Beth, Lily, and Susan as they leave the the Federal Courthouse on April 7, 2009 in Washington, D.C. staff and news service reports
updated 8/10/2010 6:00:24 PM ET 2010-08-10T22:00:24

Former Sen. Ted Stevens, an uncompromising advocate for Alaska for four decades who spearheaded scores of expensive projects to one of the nation's most sparsely populated states, including the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," has died in a plane crash. He was 86.

Family spokesman Mitch Rose said Tuesday that Stevens was among five people killed Monday night in the crash of a small aircraft outside Dillingham, about 325 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Stevens began his career in the days before Alaska statehood and did not leave politics until 2008, when he was convicted on corruption charges weeks before Election Day. But a federal judge threw out the verdict because of misconduct by federal prosecutors.

Stevens, a moderate Republican, was appointed in December 1968 and became the longest-serving Republican in Senate history. (The late Strom Thurmond was in the Senate longer than Stevens, but he spent a decade there as a Democrat before switching to the GOP.)

The wiry octogenarian was a legend in his home state, where he was known as "Uncle Ted." Though he was built like a birch sapling, he liked to encourage comparisons with the Incredible Hulk — an analogy that seemed appropriate for his outsized place in Alaska history.

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The crash that killed Stevens was not his first. Shortly after being elected to his second full term in 1978, he was aboard a private jet that went down at Anchorage International Airport, killing his first wife, Ann.

Stevens' standing in Alaska was hurt by allegations he accepted a bonanza of home renovations and fancy trimmings from VECO Corp., a powerful oil field services contractor, and then lied about it on congressional disclosure documents.

Indicted on federal charges in July 2008, he asked for an unusually speedy trial, hoping to clear his name before Election Day. Instead, he was convicted in late October of all seven counts — and narrowly lost his Senate seat to Democrat Mark Begich in the election the following week.

In his farewell speech to the Senate, he said: "I look only forward and I still see the day when I can remove the cloud that currently surrounds me."

Five months after the election, Attorney General Eric Holder dropped the indictment and declined to proceed with a new trial because of misconduct by federal prosecutors. Stevens never discussed the events publicly.

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When his party held a majority, Stevens — known as a formidable parliamentarian — was chairman of several Senate committees, including the powerful Rules and Appropriations panels. For three years, he was majority whip. When the Democrats took back control of the Senate in January 2007, he lost his chairmanships but remained ranking Republican member of the powerful Commerce Committee.

His skill in appropriating military and other federal money for Alaska earned him the reputation among many in Washington as a pork-barrel politician.

Revered in Alaska — he was named Alaskan of the Century in 1999 for having the greatest impact on the state in 100 years — he brought in "Stevens money" that literally helped keep the remote state solvent. The Anchorage airport is also named in his honor.

"The only special interest I care about is Alaska," he was fond of saying.

A television reporter once quipped that Stevens could shoot Santa's reindeer and Alaskans would applaud.

He helped shape landmark legislation on Alaska Native land claims, the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, fisheries management and public lands.

One of his projects became a symbol of pork-barrel spending in Congress and a target of taxpayer groups who challenged a $450 million appropriation for bridge construction.

The "Bridge to Nowhere" would have connected Ketchikan, Alaska, to an island with just 50 residents at a cost of nearly $400 million. The proposal became a symbol of the waste associated with earmarks, which are items inserted into bills, often at the last minute.

Congress scrubbed funding for the bridge in 2005.

The following year, Stevens became the butt of jokes and satirical songs for describing the Internet as "a series of tubes" and for speaking of sending "an Internet" instead of an e-mail.

Most of the wisecracks portrayed Stevens as an old man who did not understand the technology over which he wielded influence as chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Stevens also was known for being easily angered both in private and on the Senate floor. Stevens saw his volatile temperament as a political tool.

"I don't lose my temper," he told the Anchorage Daily News in 1994. "I always know where it is."

When critics called for his resignation after a Los Angeles Times story detailed how Stevens became a millionaire investing in companies he helped secure government contracts, he said: "If they think I am going to resign because of a story in a newspaper, they're crazy."

Stevens also took flak for aiding groups that hired his son, former state Senate President Ben Stevens, as a consultant and for pushing a lease deal with Boeing after it hired his wife's law firm.

In 2007, FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents raided Stevens' four-bedroom house south of Anchorage as part of the probe into his relationship with VECO. Former company chief Bill Allen, who pleaded guilty to bribing Alaska state legislators, testified that he oversaw extensive renovations at Stevens' home and sent VECO employees to work on it.

During the trial, Stevens spent three days on the witness stand, vehemently denying any wrongdoing. He said his wife handled the business of the renovation and paid every bill they received. He said he paid $160,000 for the project and believed that covered everything.

The law firm that defended Stevens in his 2008 criminal trial criticized the government's actions in the case on Tuesday. The Williams & Connolly law firm said in a statement that the senator did not deserve the treatment he received from some members of the Justice Department.

The statement by the firm and two of its attorneys, Brendan Sullivan and Rob Cary, says the verdict against the senator was based on fabricated evidence.

It took Stevens some time to initially win over Alaska voters. He was the Republican nominee for the Senate in 1962, but lost in the general election to incumbent Ernest Gruening, and six years later he lost his party's nod to Anchorage banker Elmer Rasmuson.

But when incumbent Democrat Bob Bartlett died in December 1968, Stevens was appointed to the vacancy by then-Gov. Walter J. Hickel, a Republican. Stevens won his first full term in 1972, and in subsequent elections was retained by wide margins. He won his sixth full term in 2002 with 78 percent of the vote.

Theodore Fulton Stevens was born Nov. 18, 1923, in Indianapolis. His parents divorced when he was young and, in 1938, he moved to southern California to live with relatives.

After graduating from high school in 1942, he attended college for a semester before joining the Army Air Corps. He flew cargo planes over "the hump" in the Himalayas during World War II and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

After the war, Stevens finished college at UCLA and in 1950 earned a law degree at Harvard. Fresh out of law school, he moved to Washington, D.C., to work and, in 1953, he drove cross-country to the Territory of Alaska to take a job in Fairbanks.

In 1954, Stevens was named U.S. attorney in Fairbanks and two years later returned to Washington to work on the statehood issue for Interior Secretary Fred Seaton, a statehood supporter. Eventually Stevens rose to become the Interior Department's top lawyer.

He moved back to Alaska in 1961, opening a law practice in Anchorage. After losing the 1962 Senate race to incumbent Gruening, he won a seat in the Alaska House of Representatives. He was House majority leader when appointed to finish Bartlett's term.

Two years after the 1978 plane crash, he married Catherine Chandler, a lawyer from a prominent Democratic family in Alaska.

When Republicans took control of the Senate in 1981, Stevens became assistant majority leader. In 1984, he ran for majority leader, but lost by three votes to Kansas Sen. Bob Dole. The most senior Republican in the Senate, Stevens served as Senate President Pro Tempore and was third in the line of succession for the presidency until Democrats regained control of Congress in 2007.

In a statement, Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye said, "Our friendship was a very special one. When it came to policy, we disagreed more often than we agreed, but we were never disagreeable with one another. We were always positive and forthright ... I will never forget him." Inouye served as a character witness for Stevens during his corruption trial.

From Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski touched on Stevens' legacy in the state.

"The love and respect that Alaskans of all persuasions feel toward Ted Stevens is on a par with what the American people felt towards leaders such as John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ronald Reagan," she said in a statement.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: NBC: Stevens killed in plane crash

  1. Closed captioning of: NBC: Stevens killed in plane crash

    >>> msnbc's tom costello has the latest out of these developments out of dillingham, alaska . tom what can you tell us about this plane crash ?

    >> we have been working this story since 6 a.m ., 6:00 a.m . and been working it hard to find out what has been happening outside of alaska . what we can tell you right now is that there are reports that onboard the plane that crashed was former alaska senator ted stevens and we're also hearing from nbc's andrea mitchell that also onboard this plane that crashed was the ceo of edds, sean o'keefe. we do not know exactly how many people are onboard this plane. there are reports of eight or nine. there are reports of some fatalities but also of some survivors. this plane reportedly went down in what is described as rather nasty weather. rescuers have had a hard time getting to this plane. by the way, the plane is described as a single engine, it is a dhc-83 otter. it was built in 1987 . a plane serving these remote areas of alaska where often you have to fly in and land on the water. this plane went down late last night in alaska and apparently some good samaritans who made their way to the crash scene and spent the night there with the victims. rescuers, however, have had a tough time getting there. to our knowledge --

    >> the weather is still bad, right?

    >> that's what we are led to believe. that the weather is very challenging. to our knowledge, at this moment, rescuers are still not there and still have not removed anybody from the wreckage. so, that is what we have right now and, again, i would underscore that we have been working this and hearing this from multiple sources for hours now and we feel comfortable to report that onboard that plane was former senator ted stevens and also we're hearing that sean o'keefe was onboard, as well.

    >> people should know ted stevens is pretty tough guy, this is a guy who survived a plane crash earlier in his life. it was a plane crash that took the life of his first wife. we know that in alaska , with unpredictable weather patterns up there that flying has taken the lives of quite a few well-known politicians. ted stevens he's walked away from a plane crash before. so people should know that this is somebody, a man who wears, like to wear incredible hulk ties on the floor of the u.s. senate is somebody who is a pretty tough guy and it wouldn't surprise anybody if he had it in him to walk away from this crash.

    >> we should also point out, chuck, i think we should also point out that the plane is owned by the gci corporation. a company that deals with telecom, satellite, cable television and that kind of thing and this plane was reportedly on a gci facility, a company facility. this is an area where there is a lot of fishing and outdoor activity . that is the kind of activity these individuals would have involved in. an outing for some recreation.

    >> tom y know you have to go back to reporting this story. we'll be right back and continue to bring

Photos: Ted Stevens 1923 - 2010

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  1. In this 1973 photo, President Gerald Ford stands beside Ted Stevens at Stevens' 50th birthday in Anchorage, Alaska. Stevens, an uncompromising advocate for Alaska for four decades who delivered scores of expensive projects to one of the nation's most sparsely populated states, died in a plane crash on Monday, Aug. 9, at the age of 86. Family spokesman Mitch Rose says Stevens was among the victims of a crash outside Dillingham, Alaska about 325 miles southwest of Anchorage. (The Anchorage Daily News) / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Authorities examine the wreckage of a plane crash at Anchorage International Airport that killed Sen. Ted Stevens' first wife, Ann in December of 1978. (The Anchorage Daily News / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Members of the Senate Republican leadership depart a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, held in light of an all night session to pass a bill at midnight on Dec. 17, 1982. From left are Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, Sen. Paul Laxalt, R- Nev. and Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah. (John Duricka / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. In this undated photo, Sen. Ted Stevens, left, and President Jimmy Carter discuss the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. (The Anchorage Daily News / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. President Ronald Reagan is flanked by Congressional leaders during a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington on Jan. 25, 1984. From left are, House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill; Chief of Staff James Baker, partly obscured; Attorney General Nominee Edwin Meese; President Reagan; Majority Leader Howard Baker; and Majority Whip Ted Stevens of Alaska. (Barry Thumma / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, thanks the Alaska Native people after giving his congressional report to the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage, Alaska on . Oct. 28, 2004. (Al Grillo / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska speaks to reporters in the US Capitol building in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 18, 2008. Former US Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, the longest-ever serving Republican in the chamber, was confirmed to have died in the crash of a small plane in Alaska according to a friend of the family. Five of the nine people on board died as the plane went down on August 9. (Matthew Cavanaugh / EPA file) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens greets supporters during a welcome home rally in Anchorage, Alaska on Oct. 29, 2008. (Al Grillo / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens stands with his daughters, from left, Beth Stevens, Lily Stevens and Susan Covich as he leaves federal court in Washington on April 7, 2009. (Susan Walsh / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
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