The peculiar political landscape of the Vice-Presidential hopeful.
by Philip Gourevitch September 22, 2008
It rained a lot in Alaska this summer—even more than usual—and it was a cold summer, too. The sun doesn’t set on much of the state between mid-June and mid-July, but the weather was such that if you came from Outside, which is how Alaskans refer to the rest of the United States, and you happened to visit on a day that was fair, people would thank you for bringing the sunshine. If you were there to inquire into the political situation, people thanked you for that, too. They thanked you for coming, for hearing them out, and for not treating their story as a national joke. Many Alaskans enjoy being disconnected from the Lower Forty-eight, which is sometimes referred to as if it were a foreign country. There is pride in this sense of apartness, and that pride has been stung repeatedly since 2006, when the F.B.I. began raiding state lawmakers’ offices in an ever-expanding anti-corruption campaign. There have been indictments and guilty pleas. Oil-industry executives who were caught on videotape in the Baranof Hotel, in Juneau, the state capital, giving cash handouts to a state legislator have coöperated in pointing out other state legislators who liked to get paid before voting on oil-industry tax rates. Last year, the F.B.I. hit the home of Ted Stevens, Alaska’s six-term senator, and he became a favorite figure of ridicule on “The Daily Show”: an angry little man, with an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Magoo, who had once made himself seem even older than his eighty-plus years by describing the Internet as “a series of tubes”; Jon Stewart called him a “coot,” and portrayed him as a bully and a crook. As I travelled around Alaska in mid-August, Alaskans wanted me to understand that, sadly, he might well be all of that—and a very good thing for the state, too.
I booked a flight to the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport shortly after Stevens was indicted on, and pleaded not guilty to, seven felony charges for failing to report more than a quarter of a million dollars in gifts from the same oilmen who had bought much of the state legislature. I had to change planes in Las Vegas, but when I got there I was told that my flight to Anchorage had been cancelled, on account of a volcano in the Aleutian Islands that had erupted and “burped”—the technical term—a gigantic cloud of ash into the lower stratosphere. The cloud had drifted in a northeasterly direction and occupied much of the airspace over the Gulf of Alaska. More than five thousand travellers were stranded as a result. The next day, when the cloud moved and I completed my journey, I learned that, after a similar belch of ash choked out all four engines of a K.L.M. flight into Anchorage in 1989, Ted Stevens finagled an earmark on an appropriations bill to secure federal funds for the Alaska Volcano Observatory, whose missions included the monitoring of volcanic activity and its attendant hazards. The Alaska Volcano Observatory became a punch line on “The West Wing,” mocked as a ludicrous example of congressional pork, which is how it might sound until you think about your plane crashing.
So Ted Stevens may have saved my life—and that was something a great many Alaskans could say as they looked about at the roads and bridges, the hospitals and flood-control systems, the satellite weather and global-positioning relay stations, the sprawling Army and Air Force bases, the rural landing strips and postal air-cargo flights that sustain existence in Alaska as it enters its fiftieth year of statehood. Much of this infrastructure was the result of Stevens’s work on the Senate Appropriations and Armed Services Committees, and he made no apologies for his transactional approach to politics. On the contrary, as he brought Alaska the highest number of federal dollars per capita in the nation, he boasted that he was doing his job. Still, Stevens’s decision to launch a reëlection campaign in the middle of a federal investigation required more than ordinary moxie.