- Interview by
- Branko Marcetic
Propelled into the 2020 limelight by the gonzo campaign tactics of his youthful campaign staff — the “Gravel teens” — eighty-nine-year old Mike Gravel has pioneered a new, irreverent, and extremely online kind of presidential campaign. But the issues he’s running on are deadly serious: opposition to US imperialism, drastic action to address climate change, and a radical revamping of American democracy. As a maverick senator from Alaska in the 1970s, Gravel made history by entering the top-secret Pentagon Papers into the public record. Now, he’s fighting to make his way onto a 2020 Democratic debate stage.
In this interview with Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic, Gravel talks about his admiration for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, his contempt for Vietnam-era warmongers in the Senate, and his big idea for an overhaul of the country’s broken political system: a “Legislature of the People.”
Your campaign for this election was started by what have become known in the media as “the Gravel teens.”
The kids, is what I call them.
Yeah. But you could have decided to sit this one out and say, “You guys can keep manning the social media, if you want, but I’m not going to do anything.” So, what made you decide to jump into yet another presidential race this year?
Well, I don’t know that I jumped in. These kids came to me and asked me if I would run, and I told them, “Now, do you have any idea how old I am?” And they said, “Well, that doesn’t matter. What we’re interested in is exposing the issues.” But what really caused me to go along with them was the fact that they were supportive of the issue that floats my boat, which is the creation and operation of a Legislature of the People, and so when they ran that by me and then ran by the research they did on Tulsi Gabbard, who I am a great admirer of, both of those instances caused me to change my mind and go along with them.
And what I mean by “go along with them” is they’re doing all the work. I’m not traveling. The only thing I’m doing is making myself available for interviews. That’s the extent of it. It’s their show and they’re doing a fabulous job, obviously.
I think it’s safe to say that the last time you ran for president, the media didn’t take a lot of what you were saying very seriously. It had a very dismissive attitude. And yet now, a lot of your talking points from 2007–2008 strike me as not being very controversial anymore. Do you get a sense that public opinion has really shifted? Or is it more that the media is more likely to take these things seriously?
I think it’s some combination of the two, but primarily the media’s responsibility is to go ahead and at least address the issues; that’s what’s important. Like the whole concept of no more wars — I took this up, and just recently I was informed that Tulsi Gabbard, and also Bernie Sanders and Senator Warren, have all bought in to stopping the endless wars. And of course, not too many of the other candidates have, which is a reflection on them, that once elected they would be puppets of the military-industrial complex. And that’s sad. But at least at this point in time, the frontrunners, or potential frontrunners, are addressing this subject with credibility, and it’s reported on with credibility.
So, if you were to boil down the message you’re running on this time, what would it be?
Two issues. Well, three. One is the Legislature of the People and the fact that we need it if we want to make some fundamental changes. But there are two other subjects that are very serious. One is something that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has really made into an issue, and that is the Green New Deal, which I think is really late in coming and it’s right-on as a national commitment. Because otherwise we’re committing planetary suicide over a long period of time.
But the issue which I think is extremely important and is not addressed at all by any of the candidates — and it’s the most serious one that faces us — is the refurbishing of the nuclear arsenal that started under Obama and continues under Trump. The government is reportedly spending $1.7 trillion, but that doesn’t account for the double or triple cost overruns that the military suffers from. So we’re talking about three to four trillion dollars that is going to be spent on establishing or refurbishing our nuclear arsenal.
This is the number one priority of the military-industrial complex, so when they say this, what they’re saying is that we have a plan for global suicide. Because triggering a nuclear winter means the whole planet will be denied the sun for decades. And that is of course immediate annihilation. And this is something nobody’s talking about, so the message is real simple. We’re spending trillions of dollars on a weapon that cannot be used because any use of it triggers a nuclear winter and destroys the planet. It doesn’t get any sicker than that. Our leadership is insane in this regard, so we’re really all a party to this insanity.
The anti-nuclear movement was a pretty big force for many decades in the West and yet, since the Cold War, it seems to have almost completely disappeared.
What you’re saying says something about the national and global complacency about the threat that exists to our survival. When you recognize that this nuclear or this environmental threat to our survival is real, then you have to ask yourself, why has this come about? What is the failure of representative government that has permitted this situation to exist? And the obvious answer is that if representative government is so deficient, which it is, then what’s the alternative? The alternative is the people. Now the problem with the people taking responsibility is that the Constitution does not provide any procedures for the people to act. So what we need to do is to have a national election. And the book that I’m just finishing, which will be out in a couple of months, is essentially a manual for the creation and operation of a Legislature of the People.
The founders all said that the people should be able to change their government to suit their purposes. Well, the problem is they never gave us procedures for the people to do that. And that’s what I’ve written in this manual, procedures to enact a Legislature of the People. And then at the same time, on a parallel note with a constitutional amendment, there is a Legislative Procedures Act, so that once the people have the power to make laws, they have to do it in a deliberative fashion. Otherwise it’s anarchy, and we see that with Brexit, where some people say, “Well, the Brexit referendum was direct democracy.” It was not direct democracy. It was the foolhardiness of representative government that put the issue to the people without providing detailed information as to the consequences of the vote. And so, the Legislature of the People is just that simple. It’s a constitutional amendment that has to be enacted by the people in a national election, unrelated to the government.
And in this national election we use the criteria that when 51 percent of the people who voted in the last presidential election vote for this Legislature of the People, it becomes the law of the land. And then we proceed. The constitutional amendment provides for the appropriation of money for the Legislature of the People, equal to the sum that’s appropriated to the Congress. And it goes into extreme details — subcommittee hearings, the entire process of legislating. And so that is what is in the book, the manual to do it. My hope is that because of the kids, who are bringing new celebrity status to me as a candidate, this knowledge of the Legislature of the People can be spread.
It sounds like there’s a similarity with Bernie Sanders’s call for a political revolution. Do you see a parallel there?
Very much. And I support Bernie totally, I donated to his campaign earlier. It’s exactly the same. The difference is that Bernie is making is a clarion call; now we need the nuts-and-bolts process to do that. And neither he nor anybody else has come up with that, other than what you always hear people say: “the people should,” or “the government should.” Well the government won’t, and the people don’t have the tools yet to do it. That’s what I’ve put forth, and I would hope that Bernie, when the book is out and he gets a chance to read it, that he will add to his clarion call, the methodology that I’m putting forth to bring it about. To empower the people, to make laws, to get control of their institutions. And you would see that the people would enact an agenda that would be very progressive. Far more progressive than many of liberals today.
Let’s talk about the different episodes of your career. Earlier in your career it seems like your thinking about Vietnam changed, between your initial race for the Senate in 1968 and your term in office. You sort of ran to the right of Sen. Ernest Gruening at first, and yet you became one of the most antiwar senators in the US Congress. Was there something that shifted your views during that time that made you take that increasingly radical antiwar stand? Or did you run to his right purely for electoral purposes?
That’s exactly right. In fact, when he voted against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, I wrote him a heartfelt letter congratulating him on his courage and wisdom. And when he then ran for reelection, I was thirty-eight and he was eighty-three. All I had to do was to keep my mouth shut and not support the war but just stand to the right of him, and people assumed that I was the alternative to his antiwar position. But it was on my part very Machiavellian to not weigh in on what I truly believed.
So what happened was that I won the election, barely, and I had assumed that Gruening would not have lived through another term. Well, I was wrong. He did live through the six years that I first served. But then I was as active an antiwar senator as Gruening was, and the measure of it is, I decided to release the top-secret Pentagon Papers officially. I don’t know if Gruening would have done that. I was a great admirer of his, but unfortunately when I ran for the House, he opposed me gratuitously. And that’s what turned me around, as I had no responsibility to him. So when the screw turned and I had the opportunity to run for office, I did. And my career speaks for itself.
There’s almost something poetic about it because Gruening’s grandson then ran against you in, what was it, 1980? And ended up beating you in the primary. So it’s almost tit for tat.
It was a little more complex than that. It was the liberal wing of the state legislature — Gruening was part of it and they sort of revolted against my position with respect to the Law of the Sea. I’ve always been a globalist, so when that issue was before the Congress, I was the leader in favor of the Law of the Sea, which was giving up sovereignty. So I successfully alienated part of the native community, the fishing community, and almost anybody that ever supported me. In point of fact, I didn’t want to run for reelection but I had no place to go. So I ran, but my heart was not in it. Gruening was not an outstanding opponent, he would not have beaten me if it was not for the fact that I really didn’t have my heart in running again.
I want to ask you about the contrast between that period and now. You entered the Pentagon Papers and the Kissinger papers into the Congressional Record. I remember, I think it was during the Snowden leaks, that people were urging senators to do the same thing — to release information about surveillance using their congressional immunity, which they didn’t do. But you guys did a lot of things back in the 1970s against the war that I can’t really imagine any elected official doing now. Linking up with the antiwar movement, you led a number of protestors into the Capitol to stage a sit-in outside the Senate doors, I believe — things like that. What do you think is the difference between your generation, or at least those antiwar lawmakers that you were a part of, and today’s elected officials? Why are they less willing to flout procedure and norms for what they believe in?
Well, I think you give too much credit to my generation. Keep in mind that they were making speeches against the war, but they were still appropriating money to wage the war in Vietnam. What I did, which was a little more fundamental from a legislative point of view, when I released the Pentagon Papers, it was based upon the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution. So when my issue went to the Supreme Court, there were two decisions. One was unanimous agreement that I had every right to do that as a sitting member of Congress, to release any information to the public without being questioned elsewhere. Now, the other facet of this was that after the Supreme Court stopped prior restraint and put the newspapers on notice that they would be in jeopardy if they continued to publish, as a result of that they did not publish more than they already had.
So I had Beacon Press volunteer to publish the Pentagon Papers in their entirety, and as a result of that the grand jury was empaneled in Boston to come after me and Beacon Press. So that issue went all the way to the Supreme Court and we essentially lost that part of it. I won unanimous agreement to set the stage that any member of Congress could release any information it thought valuable to the public without being questioned about it. And so that principle is there, and unfortunately it has not been used to any important degree by today’s political generation — but also my political generation.
Keep in mind that the papers were sent by Nixon to the Senate and the House, they were put in a room under guard and a member could go in and read but not take any notes, and no staff were allowed. So, you had that silliness that took place back when I was in office. When I released the papers, I didn’t really know what was going to happen to me, so I went in to see Mike Mansfield who was Majority Leader and had been party to putting those papers into this room. And he said to me immediately, “if I had your courage, I would have done the same thing.”
Famously, when you were in the Senate you didn’t care much for these club-like Senate norms, these unwritten rules about what you are and are not allowed to do.
I had no choices. I tried. One of the things that I did earlier on was, I figured, boy, everybody’s going to these prayer breakfasts. And I’m an atheist in point of fact. But the leaders were going to the prayer breakfasts, so I thought that was a clever way to become ingratiated with the leadership. So I went to one prayer breakfast and realized that all these people sitting at the table praying were essentially the warmongering hawks who perpetuated the Vietnam War. And I couldn’t stomach it anymore, so that was my first and last prayer breakfast.
Let’s fast forward a few decades. What made you decide to run in the 2008 election?
Well, again it wasn’t my initial idea. A friend of mine contacted me and said, “Gravel, you’ve got to run for president because then you can focus on what you’re trying to do, and that is create a Legislature of the People.” At first I just told him it was ridiculous, but then the more I thought about it, I realized I had no other way to get any attention to this concept of direct democracy. So I did run for office and top on my list was, of course, the Legislature of the People. However, mainstream media never asked me a question about that, which defeated my whole reason for running. And that’s the problem I face today, and of course I hope to solve that problem by publishing this book this summer that then will be a wedge, hopefully, into the debate.
In 2007 you had a very testy exchange with Joe Biden. You served with Biden in the Senate and obviously now he’s the frontrunner in the presidential race, with quite a lead in the polls. What do you think about Biden’s campaign, and based on what you know of him, how would Biden do as president, do you think?
Well how did he do as vice-president? He was Obama’s vice-president and I think we have to agree that Obama’s administration was a failure on 90 percent of the issues. I think we can readily assume Biden would be a déjà vu of the Obama administration, and maybe even worse. And of course, Biden has a horrible record, not the least of which was the savagery that was done to Anita Hill and the decision not to permit two corroborating witnesses to come forward and testify.
Final question: who would you pick to be your running mate?
Tulsi Gabbard for sure. Or I’d be happy to be her running mate. Next would be Bernie Sanders. The ideal team for me would be Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard , whichever one would be president or vice-president. But the two of them as a team would be awesome in moving the country in the right direction. And of course, as they lead the country from the inside, I would appeal to them to endorse what I would be attempting to do on the outside, which is to establish a Legislature of the People.