McAdams On: The Late Ted Stevens

The death of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens this week is another mile-marker heralding the end of a historic era. Stevens was one of the last World War II veterans serving on Capitol Hill before he left in 2008. The senator had been on the Hill for 60 years before a smear campaign led to his unseating.

The man unquestionably interacted with more people during his tenure than live in my home town. Each probably has their own assessment. My impression was that of a decent person.

I attended Senate Commerce Committee hearings during Stevens’ tenure as chairman when the topic was TV. It came up regularly because lawmakers were trying to rewrite telecom law and nail down an end to the DTV transition. It was Stevens who proposed the Feb. 17, 2009 end date rather than the last minute of 2008. He had no desire to subject his staff to angry phone calls from people asking where the Rose Bowl went.

I personally interacted with Sen. Stevens rarely. I was typically part of the hack pack, but he singled me out on one occasion when I was walking with a cane on an injured foot. Stevens essentially swept the pack behind him so I wouldn’t get trampled. It was a maneuver of someone familiar with common courtesy, an endangered trait on Capitol Hill.

Such was evident following three days of debate that concluded with a stubborn schism on network neutrality. During a post-hearing press scrum at the dais, a reporter asked Stevens about his opposition to network-neutrality law. Network neutrality essentially allows everyone to use as much Internet bandwidth as they want. I was standing five feet from the Senator when he delivered an explanation that unleashed a flood of acidic sarcasm, and ironically made him a Web celebrity.

That was the now infamous “series of tubes” speech. The senator likened the Internet to a series of tubes that occasionally gets clogged. He was summarily flamed on the Internet and skewered by Jon Stewart on TheDaily Show. However, “series of tubes” remains the best possible colloquialism for the Internet and its maddening stall-outs. The phrase generates nearly 2 million Google results.

The good senator was valiantly trying to encapsulate his perception in simple terms, which flies in the face of coders, hackers, trolls and all of those who don’t wish to be eviscerated by this typically anonymous hoard. I found no reason to roast the senator over his syntax, especially since I’d heard much worse emanating from the natural gas reservoir that is Capitol Hill. There is no better Shakespearean comedy in production today than the usual antics in Washington.

Stevens’ understanding of the Internet was comparable to his colleagues. They all rely on 22-year-olds to bring them up to speed on everything from pharmacology, invisibility and mega-mergers, to contaminants, genetics, national infrastructure and war.

Sen. Stevens, however, violated the first law of negativity on Capitol Hill with the tube speech. Never attempt be clear about what you mean, especially not in simple terms. Always speak either in meaningless blather, spit-laced invective, or home-spun vernacular. Whatever you do, let the youngsters issue statements of clarification. That’s what they don’t get paid for.

In the end, Stevens career was railroaded by an indictment that was later determined to be based on prosecutorial misconduct--as he had contended. He returned to Alaska and lived in comparative obscurity until Tuesday.

Sen. Daniel Inouye, the Democratic senator from Hawaii with whom Stevens shared his chairmanship of the Commerce Committee, was a fellow World War II veteran. Upon Stevens’ death, he said tellingly, that “When it came to policy, we disagreed more often than we agreed, but we were never disagreeable with one another.”

Such civility, consideration and comradeship is lost to our generation. May it be resurrected by those who come after. RIP, senator. Thanks for the assist.