What made Ted Stevens such a famously bitter and vindictive man? Some people will tell you that the defining moment in the life of the powerful Alaska Republican senator, currently the target of a federal bribery investigation that threatens to end his storied career in disgrace, occurred at the end of an airport runway in 1978. In early December, Stevens was flying in a friend's small private plane from Juneau to Anchorage. The descending plane was just a few feet above the runway when it was caught by a sudden gust of wind that slammed it into the ground. Stevens somehow survived the crash. But five others aboard, including the senator's beloved wife, Anne, did not.
In what would become a familiar pattern, Stevens's first response was to lash out at a colleague. Stevens was taking the flight to a meeting about a major public-lands bill. He had worked intensely on the bill, but his rival in Alaska politics, then-Senator (and now fringe Democratic presidential candidate) Mike Gravel was trying to crush it. After returning to Washington, Stevens began murmuring that Gravel's political gamesmanship was indirectly to blame for the crash. His accusation became more specific in what a former Senate aide who was present calls "one of the most horrifying moments in the modern Senate." According to the aide (the story was also chronicled by The Washington Post at the time), Stevens hobbled into a Senate committee hearing a couple of months later on crutches and in bandages. With Gravel present, Stevens raised the topic of his reason for flying that fateful day. "I don't want to get personal about it," he told the stunned audience, "but I think if that bill had passed, I might have a wife sitting at home when I get home tonight, too."
"I felt very bad at the time," says Gravel today, adding: "Ted was a little bit emotionally destabilized by the death of his wife. It's understandable that he would have some recriminations and strike out at me since I had been such a policy opponent of his."
The aide who was present, and who has followed Stevens's career since, puts it a bit more bluntly: "I remember thinking that, when that happened, that Stevens had clearly lost his mind," he says. "I think that [crash] episode made him a really mean, bitter guy."
In the 30 years since, Stevens has continued to lash out at and threaten his colleagues for far less grave offenses, from opposing oil drilling in Alaska to blocking his obscene pet spending projects. "I'm a mean, miserable S.O.B.," he once proudly told his colleagues. And yet, he rose to awesome heights of influence in the Senate, controlling billions of dollars in public money. Now, with federal investigators closing in on him on charges that include accepting home renovations from an Alaska businessman to whom he steered lucrative federal contracts, the Gravel episode underscores a minor mystery of recent Washington politics: How was Ted Stevens able to turn the fear and loathing he engendered in others into a political asset? The answer to this question reveals not only Stevens's twisted genius for getting what he wants but also something about the Washington political culture that allowed him to run amok.
By now, Stevens's brazen schemes to funnel federal money back home to Alaska are well known: As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee from 1997 to 2005, Stevens steered well over $3 billion in federal money back to Alaska. His recent funding priorities have included $176,000 for Alaskan reindeer herders, $3 million for the Arctic Winter Games, and $250,000 to celebrate Alaska's statehood–not to mention the infamous $278 million "Bridge to Nowhere," designed for an island with a population of 50 people. Less infamous but nearly as absurd is the $100 million Stevens has brought home for the University of Alaska's High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, which began as a far-fetched investigation into harnessing the power of the aurora borealis. There's a reason that, when Stevens flies back to Anchorage, he lands at an airport named after himself: So dependent is Alaska on federal largesse that one local TV station recently speculated that the state's economy could suffer if the feds bring Stevens down.
Stevens has partly managed this feat through force of personality. While some people wear their personalities on their sleeve, the 83-year-old Stevens wears his around his neck, in the form of an Incredible Hulk necktie he dons for votes that will require his full fury. In 2003, Marvel Comics even threw a reception for Stevens to celebrate a new Hulk movie, at which one Hulk artist observed to a reporter, "The monster is basically fueled by aggression. If you stop him from being angry, then he gets weaker."
And so it is with Stevens, whose bitter disposition is legendary on Capitol Hill. In Washingtonian magazine's most recent annual "Best and Worst of Congress" contest–based on votes by congressional staffers–Stevens claimed first place for "Hottest Temper" and finished second for "Meanest." (For good measure, he also won the silver for "Fashion Victim," presumably thanks to his Hulk motifs.) When House Republicans stalled some pet projects Stevens sought a few years ago, he declared, "I'm just sorry they repealed the law on dueling. I'd have shot a couple of the sons of bitches." After the government-watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste criticized his insatiable appetite for pork spending, Stevens branded them "idiots" and "a bunch of psychopaths."
Perhaps more than any other senator, Stevens obsesses over which of his colleagues are friends and which are enemies. "People who vote against this today are voting against me," he declared after one contentious vote on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (anwr). "And I'll never forget it." After another Senate debate, Stevens announced that he had "written off" several friends in the Senate who had allegedly betrayed him. "I'm not traveling with them anymore, and I'm not going to play tennis or swim or do various things with them," he seethed. Even something as simple as an October 2005 dispute about amending a spending bill led Stevens to liken relations with his old friend, longtime Republican Senator John Warner of Virginia, to a cold war-era meltdown: "Our friendship is close to the brink, very close to the brink," he warned.
Stevens doesn't just end friendships–he gets revenge. (Or, as he has put it, "I don't make threats–only promises.") In the past, he has campaigned against colleagues who have angered him, and, in March 2006, he openly admitted to pulling a bill that would aid the Puget Sound shipping industry to spite Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, who had crossed him over anwr. As a result, no one wants to say no to The Hulk, lest they land atop his hit list. No less than then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle groveled at Stevens's feet after a 2001 episode in which the two had clashed on the Senate floor. Even though Stevens had been his typical obnoxious self, complaining publicly that Daschle's legislative maneuverings had been delaying his fishing vacation ("the urgent call of the pink salmon") and Daschle had only rebuked him mildly, Stevens fumed that Daschle had taken "a cheap shot"enough to force the majority leader to phone the bristling Alaskan with his sincere apologies.
Stevens himself admits that he uses his anger as a tactical weapon. "I want them to believe that I'll make their life miserable if they don't listen to me," he said of his colleagues in 1997. "I grew up at a time when people learned how to use their temper, not lose their temper," Stevens told another interviewer in 2003. (Even his dramatic j'accuse of Gravel after the death of his wife, after all, was in the service of getting his lands-use bill passed.)
But the explanation for Stevens's success is more complicated than just the fact that he's a bully. Many of Stevens's colleagues afford a grudging respect for him. In part that's because, in spite of his outbursts, Stevens has a certain old-fashioned integrity: He keeps his word and is fiercely loyal to his friends. According to one Senate aide, Stevens was constantly by the side of his dear friend Democrat Daniel Inouye when the Hawaii senator's wife died last year. (Inouye reciprocated last month by touring Alaska with Stevens in his hour of distress, telling the local press that coverage of his ethics woes is "overkill" and saying that, if it weren't for Stevens's earmarking, "Alaska would be in the Stone Age.")
Meanwhile, the Senate itself has changed since Stevens arrived in the late '60s. Backroom dealers like Stevens are gradually being replaced by a new generation of seat-purchasing millionaire neophytes who stand for little but the image they pay handlers to maintain. "I much prefer to deal with him than people who slap you on the back and lie like hell," David Obey, the Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told The Hill in 2003. "You know where he stands," George W. Bush said at a 2002 campaign fund-raiser for Stevens: "[T]here's no bull about him." Even Mike Gravel concedes that he "personally like[s]" Stevens.
In a city that grows ever more phony, Stevens won a strange admiration for being–a jerk, yes–but an authentic jerk. An honest jerk. But it now seems likely that Stevens went too far: that, after enriching Alaska, he felt entitled to enrich himself. If he's found guilty, Stevens will have hastened the demise of Congress's cranky old bulls. What good, after all, is a jerk you can't trust?
Michael Crowley is a senior correspondent for Time.