WASHINGTON – "Uncle Ted" Stevens, an old-style Senate giant and the chamber's longest-serving Republican, delivered his swan song address and yielded the floor for the final time Thursday. He was saluted by his colleagues as a staunch friend and teacher.
"My mission in life is not completed," Stevens said in his farewell speech on the Senate floor, as perhaps a quarter of the chamber's 100 members gathered to hear him and the gallery filled with his friends and family.
Stevens, 85, made only a passing reference to his felony convictions and the loss this week of his bid for a seventh Senate term.
"I look only forward and I still see the day when I can remove the cloud that currently surrounds me."
Family members and aides wept as Stevens recounted his six Senate terms that began not even a decade after his home state, Alaska, achieved statehood.
"Forty years!" he declared at one point. "I have a really difficult time today articulating my feelings and I hope if I puddle up, as an old friend used to say, I'll be excused."
He had no trouble recounting the struggles that came with advocating for such a wild and faraway place — nor his victories, his many chairmanships and friendships. When Stevens finished, the assembled crowd gave him a standing ovation, a violation of Senate custom. No one objected.
The speech was a poignant coda to the career of one of the chamber's last remaining lions, whose public lives have spanned generations.
Several of them, some retiring, rose to salute their friend.
"More than anyone else, you have taught me the meaning of representing my state," said one, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.
"That's right, Ted!" barked yet another long-timer, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., who turned 91 on Thursday.
Stevens was there when President Richard M. Nixon authorized an oil pipeline across Alaska that secured the new state's economy. And he became legendary for bringing federal dollars, or pork, home to a territory that had yet to be fully settled.
Where there was "nothing but tundra and forest," he said, today is home to ports, roads, water and sewer systems — and the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
"When Alaska needed a strong voice to speak up for its interests, I did my part to the best of my ability," Stevens said.
Among the farewells was one from another Republican departing under the cloud of scandal, Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, who pleaded guilty in a men's airport sex scandal but has denied doing anything wrong.
"Uncle Ted, I'm going to miss you," Craig said. "This Senate will miss you, your state will miss you and America will miss you."
Stevens was one of the Senate's most colorful characters, known for wearing a necktie bearing the Incredible Hulk during appropriations fights and — especially — over his efforts to allow gas and oil exploration in the Arctic.
Other senators rose to share stories of his gruff and tough style that belied a caring and patient friend beneath.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said that as a House member he was put off years ago by Stevens' "obstreperous, if not outrageous" behavior during a Republican retreat. Roberts recalled thinking: "'That Ted Stevens fellow is one of the most unique people I've ever met and I'd just as soon not meet him again.'"
It was not to be. Elected to the Senate years later, Roberts recalled meeting Stevens, who walked up and jabbed a finger in the new senator's chest.
"He said, 'I know who you are,'" Roberts recalled of Stevens' remark. "And I said, 'Well, I sure as hell know who you are.' And he said, 'You allegedly know something about agriculture, (former Sen.) Bob Dole told me about you, said you were a standup guy.' I said, 'Thank you.'"
Underneath, Roberts said, Stevens is a teddy bear, even though he's also been called other names.
"Under this great gruff facade — i.e., the mad penguin — here is a passionate, caring, wise and, yes, a man with a very good sense of humor which I have enjoyed immensely," Roberts said.