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Mr. Alaska: Bob Bartlett Goes to
Washington

Part Four
By Theresa Bakker
January 23, 2009

When Alaska's third territorial delegate to Congress, James Wickersham, introduced the first statehood act on March 30, 1916, nobody except a small club of supporters and a weekly Valdez newspaper even noticed. Congress did not act on the measure.

The journey to statehood for Alaska would span another forty-three years and take the efforts of a legion of politicians, clerks, newspaper editorials, businessmen and finally the people themselves. By the time statehood fever became an epidemic, residents said it was more a matter of self-respect than economics. But afterwards, many observers weren't sure if Alaska would be a state in name only or whether the federal government would live up to its promises.

After years of false starts and wavering support, President Dwight D. Eisenhower finally signed the proclamation admitting Alaska as the 49th state in the union on January 3, 1959. The president had just approved the design of the new flag the day before at his farm in Gettysburg Pennsylvania.

According to Dermot Cole's book North to the Future, the president told newly-elected Senator Bob Bartlett, "the tireless statehood campaigner," that he preferred a design featuring four rows of six stars alternating with five rows of five stars instead of the version that ended up on his desk. As it turned out, the new official flag with seven staggered rows of seven stars would only be flown for a year until the admission of Hawaii brought the total to 50.

No one person can be credited with convincing Congress to take on Alaska as a state with equal rights, but E.L. "Bob" Bartlett was certainly a major player. From his very first election as Territorial Delegate, he ran on a statehood platform, sold on the idea that it was the best possible way for Alaska to flourish.

Still Bob Bartlett's family seemed torn between serving their state from Washington and going home to Alaska once and for all. Daughter D. A. Bartlett remembers working for her father on the campaign trail during the late 1940s and 1950s as he continued to run for the position of territorial delegate.

"One year the women in Bob's office sent me around town handing out pencils for his opponent (Anchorage attorney Almer J.) Peterson," she said. "Because I didn't want to stay in Washington. It was just a joke, but he didn't like it."

Once he'd committed to the position, Bartlett dedicated himself to making sure Alaska got what it deserved as a state, battling fickle political wills and endless rounds of negotiations.

"We were gonna have statehood every year there for a while in the 50s," his daughter said. "And as long as I was on the East Coast, I was hearing about it and when we were taking vacations back in Alaska as well."

D.A. was in Haines when the statehood vote was authorized. She remembers the church bell ringing so loudly, everybody could hear it. She got dressed up to join the crowd, holding her nine-month old child in her lap. "He wet his pants on my beautiful dress." She would never forget that day.

Once the issue of statehood was settled, people in Alaska waited to see whether the federal government would make good on its promises. Alaska's many resources – from gold and other minerals to fish and game and eventually oil – seemed more than enough to support a strong economy. But that would mean deciding how to settle land claims among the state, the federal government and the native people of Alaska.

Eventually the discovery of oil would intensify the need to put an end to any bickering. According to Cole, Senator Bartlett was one of the first public voices to weigh in on the miracle of Prudhoe Bay. "My information is that the oil men who are informed, conservative as they are, look upon this as one of the great North American strikes." And he was right.

One of Bartlett's greatest accomplishments in the US Senate was his role in championing the interests of the fishing industry. He proposed a new agency to oversee a marine exploration program, shifting the focus from research to resource development. It was the first measure in that area offered by a senator other than Warren Magnuson, the powerful chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee from Washington. Bartlett, ever the statesman, made sure to inform Magnuson of his plans and freely shared the credit for whatever was accomplished.

Magnuson would later partner with another Senator from Alaska, Ted Stevens, who went on to chair the Senate Commerce Committee himself. They wrote the groundbreaking Magnuson-Stevens Conservation and Fisheries Act of 1976, which prioritized the health of a fishery when it came to regulating the resource.

Bartlett wanted to have an impact on national and international political decisions and was frustrated by what he saw as a lack of interest in those affairs by Alaskans. According to Claus-M. Naske's book Bob Bartlett of Alaska, "Bartlett speculated that this parochialism probably had its origin in their peculiarly restricted territorialism with its lack of home rule."

He was one of the first senators to call for a negotiated settlement in Vietnam after a series of coups had weakened the morale of soldiers stationed in the country plagued by civil war, as well as the deterioration of the military situation in general. According to Naske's book he said, "I fail to see that our national security is endangered enough by happenings in South Vietnam to warrant the risk of a major war."

The decade after statehood would bring many changes to both the country and Alaska. Bartlett dedicated himself to his job, authoring or co-authoring over 500 bills, but the senator seemed more committed to people than politics.

"I'm as liberal as you can go and I got it from him," his daughter, D.A. Bartlett, said. "My sister is conservative and she claims she got it from him. So apparently the rights of the little man were the most important thing."

Bartlett and the other Senator in Washington, Ernest Gruening, worked together to make sure Alaska would get what it had coming. But it wasn't always an easy relationship.

"Gruening had one of those personalities that you're either crazy about him or you hate him," his daughter said. "And half the people were crazy about him. He knew an awful lot about an awful lot of things. Bob didn't even have a college education and so he was always a little leery of all the education that Ernest had."

His wife Vide was more bothered by Gruening's attitude than Bob was. "It really got bad," D.A. Bartlett said. "But Vide would just say, ‘Oh people do this. They just say things.'"

And through it all – the moves, their long absence from Alaska, and ambivalence toward their life on the East Coast – the two managed to make their marriage last for close to thirty-five years. Author Claus-M. Naske said that was an accomplishment the senator couldn't comprehend until he found an old note Vide had written when she thought she would be out when he got home.

"The note simply stated, 'heat slowly or wait for me.' Under those conditions, Bartlett remarked, a marriage could not fail."

Before long, though, Bartlett's health did fail. He was known for his smoking habit, something he gave up every weekend, according to his daughter. "The stores weren't open, so you couldn't change your mind. And, so I would be going around (to the neighbors) saying, ‘Can you lend my father a couple of cigarettes?'"

But the smoking took its toll. Bartlett had his first heart attack by 1966, but that didn't seem to have an effect on him. He kept traveling and working long hours with hardly a vacation. "He wasn't gonna slow down just because he'd had a little heart trouble," D.A. Bartlett said.

He never exercised. He coughed endlessly and had chronic bronchitis and frequent respiratory infections.

On a trip to Cleveland in 1968 to seek treatment for his hardening arteries, Bartlett suffered a cardiac arrest nine days after the operation. He died of an internal hemorrhage a few days later.

"After claiming his belongings," according to Naske's book, "Vide unrolled his clothing and found a package of cigarettes in his robe pocket with one gone."

As it turned out, Bob Bartlett managed to have one last smoke before he died, a symbol of Alaska's reputation as a state of rugged individualists who take it upon themselves to make decisions and a difference.

Theresa Bakker is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer. This is the fourth of a four-part series she wrote for the premiere of KUAC's new documentary Mr. Alaska: Bob Bartlett Goes to Washington. It airs Jan. 29, 2009 at 9 p.m. on public television stations statewide.

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