November 10, 2005
A Bridge the Senate Could Not Cross
By Richard Cohen

Returning home after a brief, but historic, trip to the Middle East, I am relieved beyond words to find that Ted Stevens is still in the Senate. Before I left, the senator from Alaska had threatened -- on the floor of the Senate, no less -- to resign his seat if his colleagues passed a measure that would have eliminated some of Alaska's already approved transportation projects, including the now-famous ``Bridge to Nowhere,'' and awarded the money to hard-pressed Louisiana. Stevens may be the first senator to equate pork with honor. A statue should be raised to him.

As the ever-humble Stevens would himself acknowledge, this statue -- appropriately funded with money taken from Louisiana relief -- would not so much be in his honor as the entire Senate's and, why stop there, all of Washington's. Indeed, the funding of ridiculous and unnecessary projects while the government is deeply in debt (and guided by an economic numbskull) has become so much a part of contemporary Washington that -- the scolding John McCain notwithstanding -- it ought to be memorialized. A man feeding pigs is what I have in mind.

Schoolchildren of the future will bend their little brains to memorizing Stevens' defense of home-state pork, the transcript of which shall be engraved on the base of the statue. They will recall that after one of the projects, a $223 million bridge from Ketchikan (population 8,900) to Gravina Island (population 50), was mocked as the ``Bridge to Nowhere,'' Stevens properly turned the issue into one of virtual civil rights. He recalled the days when Alaska was a mere territory with few of the usual rights of states and now, once again, it was being accorded second-class status: ``It will not happen,'' he thundered. ``It will not happen,'' he bellowed. (It's possible he bellowed the former and thundered the latter -- the record is unclear.)

The statue of Stevens will note that he was the first senator in American history to take himself hostage. His threat to resign -- an action of vast indifference to all of mankind with the possible exception of 50 people on Gravina Island -- would have deprived the Senate of a reverse Gold Rusher, someone who came down from Alaska to mine for gold in Washington. His speech, in which over and over again he bemoaned the pitiful nature of his state's modest road system, made no mention of how Alaskans pay no state income tax and are awarded a piece of the state's oil revenues. The state is No. 1 in per capita federal aid, which is a tribute of sorts to Stevens' ability to game the system at the expense of us all. The statue's inscription shall, of course, make note of that, too.

But it is his threat to resign -- ``I don't threaten people, I promise people'' -- that shall forever be memorialized. It is a model of insistence, of selfishness, of seeing the government no differently than Huey, Dewey and Louie saw their uncle, the fabulously rich Scrooge McDuck. It's not that Stevens did not concede that Louisiana had its needs after Katrina, it's just that Alaska alone should not -- regardless of the silliness of its projects -- be the sole state to be asked to sacrifice. Remember, Stevens said, Alaska has had its catastrophes, too. He cited the 1964 earthquake.

As for the Democrats, they mostly let the matter slide. In that moment, they proved themselves as much a part of this corrupt system as the Republicans who control the government. Indeed, they could have made a production out of the fact that President Bush not only signed the pork package without protest, but praised it for accomplishing ``goals in a fiscally responsible way.'' If there is room on the plaque, this statement should be included. It is up there with anything Daniel Webster might have said.

In the end, of course, the Senate backed down. Only 15 members stood up to Stevens. Their names have been taken, their sanity questioned and their home states will surely be deprived of a bike path or two. But as I traveled around the Middle East, I would open my trusty laptop and beam up Washington, bemused at the wholly improbable thought that while I was gone the Senate would have the guts or the plain good taste to say to Stevens, go ahead -- quit. But that, as every schoolchild will know from the Stevens Statue, did not happen. It is a bridge the Senate could not cross.

© 2005, Washington Post Writers Group

Richard Cohen

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