Heard on the Hill

A portrait unveiling for ‘Alaskan of the century,’ Uncle Ted Stevens

Senators reminisce about the late Alaska senator and his legendary salmon fishing trips

Catherine Stevens, far left, the widow of the late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, attends the portrait unveiling for the senator, with family members, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., right, and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., second right, in the Old Senate Chamber on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Some senators are better fishermen than others.

When senior lawmakers gathered with many of their former colleagues to unveil the leadership portrait of former Senate President Pro Tempore Ted Stevens on Wednesday, it was inevitable that there would be plenty of discussion of the legendary salmon fishing trips hosted by the late Republican from Alaska.

GOP Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the current president pro tempore, was among those speaking in the Old Senate Chamber. He talked about traveling on one of the late senator’s tours of Alaska National Guard facilities.

“I had the opportunity to see the beauty of the state, the importance of ANWR [Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] to the energy of the United States, the needs of native Alaskans, and the massive amount of salmon in the beautiful streams there,” Grassley said. “And I was the only one that didn’t catch a single one of those salmons.”

[Flashback Friday: 'A Series of Tubes']

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the current top Democrat on the Appropriations panel that Stevens long served as chairman, admitted he had a similar lack of success.

“Chuck, you should know he invited me to come on one of his salmon fishing trips in Alaska,” Leahy said. “I didn’t catch a fish either. Marcelle  did,” Leahy added, referring to his wife. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has had better success.

“I have been on some of those fishing trips, and I don’t know what it is with you guys, but I caught fish,” Murkowski said. “In fact, it was at one of Ted’s classics — Kit Bond, you’ve been at many of them, many of you have been — on the infamous Kenai River. I caught a big one, one year at Ted’s tournament, and the big fear was that it was going to be bigger than Ted’s, and then what was I going to do?”

Her catch came in about 5 pounds lighter than the Stevens record, Murkowski said.

Bond, a former Missouri Republican senator and longtime Appropriations subcommittee chairman under Stevens, was among the former senators in the audience.

Senate party leaders are included in the Senate’s leadership portrait collection, as well as the occupants of the pro tempore’s office.

“So, here is the top-ranking office in this deeply political body, and you can’t politick your way into it or angle for it, or mount a campaign for it,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said. “It doesn’t matter if you are slick or suave. It doesn’t matter if you have national ambitions. All you can do is represent your home state with so much excellence and so much passion that they rehire you over and over and over again.”

Roberts said he followed Stevens (who was known for wearing an Incredible Hulk tie) down to the Appropriations Committee office, where the Alaskan replied, “You don’t understand. I’m not angry, I just used my anger as a tool.”

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas spoke of the frequency with which Stevens and his dear friend and longtime partner at the Appropriations Committee, Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, would manage to win skirmishes between appropriators and authorizers.

But Roberts said Stevens was a close friend, and he told the story that drew perhaps the biggest laughter.

“Our Tuesday policy lunch often included discussions of appropriation bills versus policy and ideology. One day, Ted had enough and shouted, stood up and shouted, ‘When are you people going to understand? Without Democrat votes, we cannot pass appropriation bills,’” Roberts said. “He left the room, slammed the door so hard that Mike Mansfield’s portrait almost fell to the floor.”

The tributes also played out on the floor during Wednesday’s session, including from Sen. Dan Sullivan, who has a weekly series of floor speeches highlighting an “Alaskan of the week.”

“I’m literally able to now talk about the Alaskan of the century,” Sullivan said.

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