The outpouring here in Washington over the death of Ted Stevens has been so effusive that you wouldn’t necessarily have guessed that the former senator already had been out of office nearly two years, or that the plane crash that killed him had happened on an isolated mountain nearly 4,000 miles away.
Presidents, fellow senators, Republicans and Democrats all rushed to offer their sympathies for the loss of Stevens, who had been convicted on corruption charges only in 2008.
To be sure, the official Washington offer of condolence has become such a ritualized art form as to ring a bit hollow when politicians sing the praises of those who, in life, had been their most bitter adversaries.
There appeared to be at least some such faux grief in the instant eulogies offered for Stevens, given that some of those who volunteered the kindest words were the same ones who, not that long ago, were hammering the Alaska Republican as a crook.
(In a trenchant aside, you don’t often see official condolences from a deceased’s legal team, but there Stevens’ lawyers were, very much among those to offer the world their sympathies on his passing, defending their client to the bitter end.)
While some condolences may appear to have been less than authentic, on the whole they were altogether fitting for a man who was the longest-serving Republican in Senate history, and who played such a huge role in shaping his home state, literally from the time of statehood.
Looked at with a less cynical eye, one could find touches of genuine affection for Stevens, from both parties. You could see it in those condolences that went beyond such boilerplate approbations as lauding Stevens as a “statesman” and “public servant,” to more friendly remembrances, such as this one from Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy:
He was a tough negotiator and a savvy legislator. But as I told him again last month, he was an old-school senator. He always kept his word to me and to other senators. In moments of legislative battle he would come onto the floor wearing his Hulk tie, and he would growl and act like a bulldog. But then he would spot friends on the floor and give a wink and a grin.
Make no mistake: Stevens was no go-along-to-get-along moderate; he was among the fiercest conservatives. But sentiments like Leahy’s showed a more human side, not just of Stevens, but of the individual offering the testimonial. They also reveal a bit, just a glimmer, of a sense of fellowship and common bond that may still be possible, not only in the acrimony of the U.S. Senate, but within the whole stewing cauldron that is our nation’s capital.
If only we could find a way to more fully manifest that spark without it having to be compelled by tragedy.