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Mike Gravel Should Be on the 2020 Debate Stage

Mike Gravel's hellraising efforts against US imperialism have had real, lasting effects. The public should get to hear his views in the 2020 Democratic primary debates.

Democratic presidential hopeful Mike Gravel speaks at a news conference May 14, 2007 in Washington DC. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

There have been few characters in the American political landscape like Mike Gravel.

While many politicians claim the mantle of “maverick” while doing little to nothing that qualifies them to hold it, Gravel has been one of the postwar US political order’s true mavericks. Gravel aggressively pursued his often heterodox political goals with little care for either the boys’ club niceties of the Senate in which he served for twelve years, or for general political propriety and, at times, common sense.

The result was that, in his relatively short time as a lawmaker, Gravel both almost single-handedly ended the military draft, and unwittingly helped protect millions of acres of untouched Alaskan wilderness he was trying to block federal protection for. It’s meant Gravel has been capable of offering blunt, even radical assessments of political issues and even visionary prescriptions for solutions, while also occasionally veering into the kookier parts of the political wilderness, from his insistence that “something is monitoring the planet” because of the preponderance of wars, to his belief that “9/11 was an inside job.”

There has been renewed interest in the eighty-eight-year-old Gravel this election cycle, as he continues on his longshot bid for the presidential debate stage. Gravel, whose campaign was prompted and is being run run by a small group of left-wing teenagers who learnt about him from Chapo Trap House, is currently trying to amass the minimum sixty-five thousand donors needed before June to appear in the Democratic debates, a goal that, as of the time of writing, he’s short of.

If one were to pick a single thread that’s run through Gravel’s career, it’s his adeptness at using the constantly evolving mass media to push his priorities and shift the political discourse. For Gravel and the teens who pushed him to run, the Democratic debates are the latest opportunity to do just that.

A Man for Alaska

Born in Springfield, Massachusetts to French-Canadian parents, Gravel’s life followed a not uncommon trajectory for Depression-era babies: military service, including intelligence work, followed by studies at Columbia University, during which time Gravel worked as a cab driver to make ends meet.

Using his savings, Gravel set out for Alaska on a friend’s recommendation to seek his fortune. After working as a brakeman, Gravel joined the Jaycees, serving as an evangelist against the progressive income tax in the nation’s capital. Some time after, Gravel got involved in a business venture promoting Alaska’s largest mobile home village, a venture that collapsed amid accusations of undercapitalization, inadequate insurance, and mismanagement by Gravel, accusations that, at least according to a 1971 Washington Post profile, were “substantially accurate.” They were inauspicious beginnings for someone who would later be considered too far left to be a serious contender for the Democratic nomination.

Gravel’s time in Congress was preceded by several failed campaigns at the state and local levels, before being taken under the wing of Barney Gottstein, a millionaire grocer and Democratic donor, and Larry Carr, a supermarket maven. Gravel then experienced a meteoric rise in the Alaskan House of Representatives, winning a seat in 1962 and becoming speaker after only one term.

Under his speakership, the legislature set up a high school program for rural Alaskans that allowed indigenous children in remote areas to be educated locally, instead of being shipped hundreds and even thousands of miles away to schools in the contiguous United States. In what would become a pattern, Gravel also succeeded in pissing off just about everyone in the State House, partly because of his refusal to fulfil promises of committee chairmanships to colleagues, and was nearly voted out of his position.

Gravel’s first congressional campaign, for Alaska’s lone House seat in 1966, failed to unseat the Democratic incumbent. While others might have been chastened, Gravel’s loss led him only to expand his ambitions, challenging eighty-one-year-old Democratic senator Ernest Gruening two years later. Gruening was an accomplished Democratic statesman known as “Mr. Alaska” for his spearheading of Alaskan statehood in 1959. Besides that, he was one of the senate’s leading antiwar voices, voting against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, and correctly evaluating that the My Lai atrocity committed by US soldiers was “not an isolated business,” decrying the “ghastly hypocrisy” of the government, which he compared to the Nazis.

Given he would become most associated with uncompromising opposition to the Vietnam War, Gravel’s 1968 campaign is something of a curiosity. Gravel ran to Gruening’s right on the war, claiming he was “more in the mainstream of American thought on Vietnam” and earning the label of a “hawk,” despite writing Gruening a letter in 1964 complimenting him on his antiwar position. In a slick-for-the-time, thirty-minute video produced for the campaign, Gravel complained that “the liberals” would gladly come to the defense of West Germany if it was attacked. “I think we should apply the same rule to Asians,” he said.

That video, titled A Man for Alaska, was key to Gravel’s victory. Opening with a pan up a pile of rocks, viewers were treated to a tour through the candidate’s life, including his war service (“He wore the plain clothes and heavy shades of an undercover agent; grew moustaches of various sizes”), and portrayed a youthful Gravel surrounded by indigenous Alaskan children as he talked about using government and Alaska’s plentiful natural resources to end poverty in the state. It closed with Gravel charging that “our First Alaskans have been cheated,” and that the only solution was “just payment to a maximum amount and the just distribution of a goodly portion of land to the natives of our total state.”

While Gruening trekked for miles through a tundra to talk to Inuit voters, Gravel drenched the state’s airwaves with the video, which he shuttled, together with projectors and campaign literature, by air and sea to indigenous communities all over the state. “There’s no question the film did it,” Gravel later said about his primary victory. He ultimately carried even Gruening’s own voting residence. The other key to Gravel’s victory was Gruening’s advanced age, which Gravel made a campaign issue of by pointedly telling everyone he wouldn’t make a campaign issue of it.

After winning the general — for which he moved left on the issue of Vietnam — Gravel entered the Senate, where he defended the interests of those who had elected him. Gravel was a steadfast advocate for indigenous Alaskans, criticizing education that failed to relate to their life experiences, excoriating the Bureau of Indian Affairs for sending kids thousands of miles away to study, and joining the unlikely duo of Barry Goldwater and Ralph Nader to call for Alaskan native peoples to control their own schools. He later backed indigenous peoples’ calls for 2 percent of revenue from state and federal land.

Gravel also became known, somewhat paradoxically for modern environmentalists, as both a fierce opponent of nuclear energy and a fierce proponent of oil industry interests. He fought unsuccessfully for more than a year against Nixon’s planned nuclear test underneath Amchitka island in Alaska, delaying it and at one point even picketing the White House with two Canadian MPs. In one New York Times op-ed sharply criticizing nuclear power, Gravel called radioactivity “the worst conceivable pollutant and threat to life,” suggesting instead a panoply of alternatives. He also introduced a bill putting a moratorium on new nuclear plants and tried to allow the public to sue the nuclear industry for damages beyond the liability limit enshrined in law.

At the same time, Gravel was one of the senate’s most high-profile backers of an eight-hundred-mile-long Trans Alaskan oil pipeline, which was due to cross 350 rivers and streams and pass through three mountain ranges.

“Oil is a kind of prejudice — a liberal prejudice,” Gravel’s administrative assistant told the Washington Post in 1969. “A surprising number of people feel that if you touch oil you get dirty.”

Asserting there would be no environmental hazard from the pipeline, Gravel was disappointed when the D.C. Circuit court blocked its permit in 1973, and he introduced a bill allowing its construction in response. As environmental groups fought the pipeline, Gravel put forward an amendment immunizing it from further challenge and delay through the courts.

Decades later, the pipeline, successfully approved in late 1973, had indeed positively transformed Alaska’s economy. But corrosion and reduced oil flows had also turned it into a ticking time bomb, and produced several alarming oil spills.

On other issues, Gravel was a fairly reliable liberal voice. He co-sponsored legislation in 1970 to set up a guaranteed income and work plan, giving poor families up to $6,300 a year, or around $42,000 today, and later voted to give poor families a 10 percent work bonus. He backed bills to extend social security to cover federal workers, and proposed an election reform bill in 1971 that mandated full disclosure of campaign financing, limits to large donations and media spending, and put a ceiling on campaign spending by an individual candidate.

But perhaps Gravel’s most far-reaching and influential idea was the “general stock ownership plan” he proposed in 1978, that would have given every Alaskan, young and old, stock shares in large investments to be returned to them in the form of yearly dividend checks. Gravel’s was one of several ideas that, while defeated due to loathing for Gravel in the state house, morphed into Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend program. Envisioned by Gravel as a way to “build a constituency for capitalism,” the program in its final form is now viewed by some as a real-world success story of socialism in action.

“We Should All Cry Over It”

But by far the issue that most defined Gravel’s career in and out of the Senate was Vietnam. After winning a Democratic primary by running as the “mainstream” candidate on the war, Gravel became, in the Wall Street Journal’s words, a “superdove,” willing to steamroll over procedure, tradition, and collegiality to end the war.

Gravel didn’t take the emphatically antiwar stance he would be known for immediately. He vacillated for months over whether to vote for Nixon’s Safeguard anti-ballistic missile system, which the New York Times called a “delusive safeguard” that was part of an arms race. At one point he suggested he might trade a vote for the system if federal oil lands in Alaska were opened to private drilling, before eventually opposing it outright. By doing so, Gravel made an enemy of Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington, who had fundraised for Gravel and gotten him a seat on the finance committee, expecting Gravel’s vote in favor of Safeguard in return.

By September 1969, Gravel had joined a secret group of congressmen plotting to take what was, for congress, radical action to withdraw troops from Vietnam. Besides pushing for resolutions to end the war, they planned to join up with a nationwide student antiwar protest the following month and aimed to prevent the Senate from meeting that same day due to lack of quorum.

In stark contrast to today’s Democrats, Gravel and other antiwar members of Congress aggressively pursued every possible option to push their message. In 1970, he and thirteen other congressional doves got the FCC to force the networks to give them airtime to argue against Nixon’s Vietnam policy, citing the Fairness Doctrine. Gravel later joined a group of twenty congressmen traveling around the country to bring constituent pressure on those elected officials reluctant to vote for withdrawal. He endorsed a month-long series of antiwar rallies in DC and San Francisco, organized by a group labelled a communist front by the Right. Calling Nixon’s “Vietnamization” program “a plan to keep on our involvement for decades until we win,” he took out a private loan to finance a broadcast campaign by the nonprofit War No More to push public opinion in an antiwar direction.

Three years after insisting in his campaign video that the United States was in Vietnam by mistake or through idealism but certainly not “because we’re aggressors,” Gravel started using much more radical rhetoric.

“We have been and are as bellicose as other nations around the world,” he said in 1971. “We delude ourselves to think we are superior.”

It’s impossible to imagine any elected official today doing any of these things.

Gravel used the power of the filibuster to act as a one-man protest movement in the Senate. Staunchly opposing military aid to Cambodia — calling it an “invasion” and accusing Nixon of running things like “Hitler ran Germany” — Gravel “paralyzed the Senate for two days” in a spontaneous filibuster in 1970, according to the Washington Post. He later trained his sights on the draft extension, hoping that by talking the draft to death, he would end the war. As Gravel explained in a letter to the New York Times, the resulting restriction on manpower would force the administration to reconsider its timetable and restrict any other overseas interventions.

His filibuster ultimately succeeded in killing the draft. Any American glad they won’t be shipped off to some far off country to kill and die at the whim of war-hungry politicians owes a deep debt of gratitude to Mike Gravel.

Most controversial, and perhaps most famous, was Gravel’s decision in June 1971 to enter the Pentagon Papers — the top-secret government history of the war in Vietnam leaked by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg — into the congressional record. After his initial plan to dramatize his opposition to the draft by talking endlessly on the Senate floor was blocked, Gravel called a special night session of the Senate Public Works Committee he sat on and read the papers out loud for three hours, before reading out his originally planned antiwar speech. With tears in his eyes, Gravel declared he wasn’t physically able to keep going, and stopped in the very early hours of the morning.

Gravel’s action infuriated his Senate colleagues, doubly so when his office later gave copies of pages of the Pentagon Papers to newspapers, and to a publisher to turn into a book. Two prominent Democrats called for his prosecution, and the subcommittee chair angrily refused to authorize payment for a stenographer to transcribe the documents. An aide he hired to help him edit the Papers was subpoenaed. The Justice Department wanted Gravel subpoenaed too, as part of a Grand Jury investigation into how he obtained a copy of the study.

Senate Democrats unhappily backed Gravel in his battle over the Grand Jury, in order to defend the principle of congressional immunity. But in the face of lockstep Republican opposition, they backed away from paying his legal fees in the case, which came to $25,000, or around $150,000 in today’s dollars.

Gravel justified his actions on simple moral grounds. “To not make them public would be a dereliction of duty morally,” he said. He told Face the Nation that he’d done it out of “frustration at the realization he could not change public policy over the war,” and that the “fundamental” issue at stake was “whether it is more important to keep secrets or to respond to moral conscience to save human life.”

“It hurts to be part of the leadership of a nation and a citizen of a nation that is killing innocent human beings,” he said. “That hurts so much we should all cry over it.”

Gravel clearly had no regrets over the episode, because a year later, he attempted to enter a sixty-three page section of the so-called “Kissinger papers” into the congressional record. A government assessment of the US bombing campaign, Gravel believed its public release would show bombing couldn’t win the war. Blocked by the Senate, he instead handed the papers to a colleague in the House, who placed it in the lower chamber’s record, leading to more outrage, accusations, and threats from his fellow congressmen.

Gravel continued to agitate against the war from inside Congress til the end. He led efforts to cut off funds for the war and put an actual formal declaration of war to a vote to demonstrate its lack of support, among many other measures. And he kept liaising with on-the-ground activists, speaking to antiwar demonstrations, and, at one point, escorting more than a hundred protesters into the Capitol where they blocked a hallway outside the Senate chamber. He promptly entered the petition they had brought into the congressional record.

His antiwar efforts weren’t only focused on Vietnam. Gravel was a consistent foe of military escalation with Russia, passing a bill early on that set up a program of exchange visits between United States and Soviet lawmakers. In 1970 he called for billions of dollars of cuts to the military budget, and would later propose cutting the overseas US troop presence by two hundred thousand.

This antiwar agitation might have made Gravel a darling of antiwar activists, but it put him at risk of accusations that he was distracted by international issues. In 1971, Gravel had to assuage annoyed native constituents who accused him of putting less than 100 percent of his time behind their land claims in Alaska. Gravel had been openly pitching himself as a running mate for Edward Muskie around this time.

It also didn’t help that Gravel had one of the worst absentee records in the Senate, partly owing to the celebrity he had achieved because of his anti-Vietnam efforts. He hit the speaking circuit, touring the country and making thousands of dollars speaking to various audiences.

Because of this, Gravel was widely expected to lose his re-election in 1974. However, with the support of national and state labor leaders, his timely securing of well-aimed earmarks, and another half-hour TV advertorial, Gravel prevailed over his GOP opponent, a board member of the John Birch Society.

Accidental Environmentalist

Gravel’s re-election spurred a determination to knuckle down, having alienated many of his colleagues through his antiwar efforts. One of his friends told the Washington Post that “Mike played at being a senator for six years; now it’s time for him to be a senator,” a goal that included improving his attendance and joining the Senate social scene.

But Gravel’s re-election had also left him $65-75,000 in the red, sparking the kind of shameless scramble for cash that has now become commonplace in US politics. In a memo dug up by the Post in 1975, his executive assistant laid out a strategy for alleviating this, including “go[ing] back to the oil companies” for fundraising and “immediately scheduling visits, lunches, dinners and/or drinks with those people who were extremely helpful” to “inquire into the governmental priorities of these people and their groups in the coming session.” The memo also suggested Gravel use honoraria, namely speaking fees, to reduce his personal debt.

This set off a series of embarrassing stories over the next several years that revealed unseemly connections between Gravel and lobbyists and fundraisers. Gravel was revealed to hold a share of a Colorado resort with two DC lobbyist friends working with him on land and energy legislation impacting Alaska. Though Gravel made no secret of the business deal, and even though one of those friends was lobbying on the opposite side of the nuclear issue from Gravel, that story became a major brouhaha in Alaska.

In 1980, the Wall Street Journal revealed Gravel had put together the most “aggressive” and “explicit” campaign-financing pitch, with one lobbyist who dealt with Gravel describing it as, “If you do X, I’ll do Y.” He sent a letter to PACs and figures connected to the oil industry promising to kill the “windfall-profits” tax aimed at the sector. He went touring through the Middle East with the business partner of a donor, who was known to brag about paying off officials, trying to sell Alaskan land to Arab businessmen. Gravel called critics of his fundraising “naive.”

Much of Gravel’s second term was focused on one issue: the years-long battle between conservationists and extractive industries over a parcel of Alaskan land bigger than California. Gravel, like other Alaskan lawmakers, was strongly against protecting the pristine but resource-rich land from exploitation. Except Gravel was so militantly opposed to giving it “protected” status — whether to appease his donors or his local constituents, both of whom were set on pillaging it — that he inadvertently helped to save the land.

Much as he did against the Vietnam war, Gravel used every trick possible to torpedo efforts to protect the land, from filibustering to adding endless amounts of often politically toxic amendments. Gravel’s targets included even compromise legislation put together by Ted Stevens, his Republican counterpart in the Senate, who decided the best hope of opening the land up to exploitation was by putting together a bill unpalatable to everyone. Gravel promised his support for the compromise in exchange for a variety of demands, only to turn around and kill it come crunch time. Gravel, who had already gotten on Stevens’s bad side by refusing his offer to wine and dine with their respective wives, made another lifelong enemy in the Senate. (Stevens later blamed Gravel and his refusal to budge on the land bill for the death of his wife in a plane crash).

Gravel’s many years of recalcitrance on the issue gave a shot in the arm to his flagging poll numbers back home, but ironically handed his conservationist opponents a historic victory. By killing every attempt at compromise, Gravel first spurred on executive action in 1978 by Jimmy Carter that protected more than fifty-six million acres of Alaskan federal lands, which in turn led to the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, a landmark piece of conservation legislation that, among other things, designated fifty-seven million acres as Wilderness, the highest level of protection for public lands. So it was that Mike Gravel, one of the Senate’s foremost champions for Big Oil, inadvertently helped keep tens of millions of acres of pristine Alaskan wilderness out of the hands of the oil, timber, and mining industries.

The enemies Gravel made in the process sealed his fate as a legislator. In 1980, Gravel faced a primary challenge from Clark Gruening, an Anchorage lawyer and the grandson of the man he had thrown out of office twelve years earlier, whose campaign was aided by a vengeful Ted Stevens. Gruening made Gravel’s notorious fundraising antics, as well as his inability to defeat the Alaskan lands bill — a fact that had sent his poll numbers plummeting shortly before the primary — the defining issues of the campaign. Gravel’s attempt to turn the tables, by charging that Gruening’s Jewish donors constituted a “special interest group … that seeks to influence the foreign policy of the United States,” understandably backfired.

Republicans voted in large numbers for Gruening in Alaska’s open Democratic primary, believing him to be an easier mark for the GOP nominee, Frank Murkowski. And indeed, Murkowski defeated Gruening in the general, winning a seat he would hold until 2002, when he handed it off to his daughter, Lisa. Gravel’s defeat thus heralded the beginning of three decades of GOP domination of Alaska’s congressional seats.

Internet Famous

America didn’t hear of Mike Gravel again until 2006, when, at seventy-five years old, he launched a long-shot presidential bid to little fanfare. The campaign didn’t really get going until the year after the announcement when, just as nearly forty years prior, Gravel took the media landscape by storm thanks to a video prominently featuring stones.

Gravel’s now infamous “Rock” video — half campaign ad, half performance art, designed by a couple of young Southern California teachers, and featuring Gravel staring wordlessly into the camera for more than a minute before walking away and dropping a large rock into a pond — went an early version of viral after it became the Daily Show’s Moment of Zen. Gravel followed it up with another cryptic video, this one featuring him picking up twigs in a forest, and making a fire that burned for seven minutes in front of the camera.

Gravel’s pioneering use of media in the 60s and 70s was updated for the digital age. Gravel won the election meme wars a decade before they were even a thing, inspiring voter enthusiasm and views from bemused and often confused Internet users. He continued to put out click-drawing videos as the campaign went on. The businessman who once ran for congress as a kind of Alaskan Don Draper ended up singing, dancing, and rapping in a goofy video that cast him as an unrequited love interest for another 2007-era viral sensation: Obama Girl.

It helped that he ran on an unabashedly progressive platform. Decades removed from his oil-slicked days in the Senate, Gravel now ran on an ambitious platform to combat climate change, including doing away with coal plants, imposing a carbon tax, and launching a “fight against global deforestation.” His other policies were a dream for anyone left of center at the close of the Bush administration: single payer health care, immediate withdrawal from Iraq, marriage equality, an end to the embargo on Cuba, lowering the legal drinking age, and more. Naturally, he was covered in a largely dismissive way by an establishment press that prides itself on its alleged objectivity.

Gravel delivered a series of blunt debate performances that for many only confirmed his “unseriousness,” but have aged rather well as public opinion has caught up. Gravel openly bashed the other candidates, saying they “frighten” him, accusing Joe Biden of “arrogance” for dictating to Iraqis how to run their country, and telling Hillary Clinton he was “ashamed” of her for voting to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization.

He criticized the candidates for unanimously declaring nuclear war was an option to deal with Iran. He asserted the United States had “no important enemies.” He charged the “military-industrial complex” controlled the US government and culture. He called the United States the “greatest violator of the non-proliferation treaty.” He said that fighting terrorism with a war would be as successful as doing so for drugs, and that the Iraq War had only created terrorists, not stopped them.

All of these things were of course true, and some have even become regular parts of political discourse today. In 2007, however, they were enough to have Gravel dismissed as a crackpot.

Frustrated with his marginalization in the Democratic contest, and declaring the Democratic Party was no longer the party of Franklin Roosevelt, but one that “continues to sustain war, the military-industrial complex and imperialism,” Gravel threw his hat in the ring in March 2008 to be the Libertarian Party candidate, losing to former Georgia congressman Bob Barr. “I just ended my political career,” remarked Gravel.

That was undoubtedly true until early this year, when three teenagers and a Twitter account helped put Gravel in the political spotlight once again. Like last time, Gravel is running on an expansive platform that reads like a left-wing policy wish list: from a program of demilitarization and end of support for repressive “allies” abroad, to a Green New Deal and reparations, to abolishing the electoral college and imposing term limits on judges. As if to make the point explicitly, Gravel even filmed a sequel to 2007’s “Rock” video.

And like last time, Gravel’s 2020 run is explicitly not a campaign for the presidency. Gravel has been open about the fact that he views Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard as the best options for a Democratic ticket. Instead, he hopes to hit the sixty-five thousand individual donors to get on the debate stage to shape and steer the conversation toward his favored policy preferences. Indeed, Gravel, never shy about saying exactly what he believes and with literally nothing to lose, would no doubt offer the most bluntly radical talking points of all the candidates on the stage, particularly on foreign wars, something every candidate could use a push on.

Lessons for Lawmakers

The world may never see a figure like Mike Gravel again, a man who started his political career as a sober, serious businessman and closed it by doing the Soulja Boy dance. As a legislator, Gravel used his position of power to fearlessly and uncompromisingly pursue his political goals with little regard for which unwritten rules he broke. As a presidential candidate, he offered frank, unvarnished assessments about the United States’ most pressing issues and about his own rivals. Along the way, he infuriated just about everyone he dealt with.

There is much to be learned from Gravel’s years in the Senate about what lawmakers can do when they pursue what they believe is moral and just, instead of being hemmed in by what others think is proper and decent, or being guided by pure political expediency — even if it can, and in Gravel’s case, did, take one down some questionable roads. And should Gravel reach the donor threshold before June, for which he’s hoping for tens of thousands of more individual donations of as little as $1, there may be much the voting public may get out of Gravel’s presence on the debate stage. Public opinion has finally caught up to what was considered laughable when Gravel last ran for president. Even Gravel’s thoughts from 2013 on UFOs seem a little less kooky in light of recent reports.

Whether or not Gravel makes it to the debate stage, he can feel secure that his efforts against the Vietnam War in the seventies had real, lasting consequence, and will serve as a model for any future lawmakers radically opposed to war. But Gravel’s campaign is betting that, at a time when militaristic jingoism prevails not just on the Right, but the liberal center too, the public is ready to hear from the maverick former senator one more time.