In the tradition of the late Paul Tsongas, the former Massachusetts senator who in 1991 launched a decidedly uphill run for the Democratic presidential nomination and succeeded in making his concerns about deficit spending central to the national discourse, another former U.S. senator will launch a presidential campaign Monday that seeks to highlight big ideas -- in this case about the Constitution and direct democracy.
Mike Gravel, who represented Alaska as a maverick Democratic Senate from 1969 to 1981, will announce his candidacy for the Democratic nomination with a press conference at the National Press Club.
Gravel came to national prominence in 1971, during the struggle over the Pentagon Papers, the secret official study that detailed how missteps and manipulations by successive U.S. administrations and their agents had created the quagmire that was the Vietnam War. Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst, provoked a national uproar when he put the report in the hands of the New York Times, which published portions of it in June of that year. The Justice Department moved to block further publication of information from the Pentagon Papers and to punish newspaper publishers who revealed the contents. At that point, Gravel, a war critic, stepped in. The senator released the Pentagon Papers to the public, arguing that he had the authority to do so as a senator communicating with his constituents. He then sought to publish the papers in book form as The Senator Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers [Beacon Press]. When Justice Department went after the senator and his publisher, Gravel fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court. While lower courts expressed sympathy for the Gravel's stance, the high court rejected his claim that as a senator he had a right and a responsibility to share official documents with his constituents. Fortunately for Gravel, publicity surrounding the case was so damning to the administration's position that it finally backed off.
The Pentagon Papers battle was a classic Mike Gravel fight. A scrappy former speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives, the senator had little patience with the secrecy and compromises of official Washington. An unrelenting critic of nuclear weapons testing on the Alaskan island of Amchitka, he came to the Capitol prepared to take on presidents and fellow senators, and he did so repeatedly. Gravel clashed not just with the Nixon administration but with fellow Democrats who counseled a more cautious approach to a president who, before Watergate, was perceived as being both popular and powerful. It was Gravel who in 1971, against the advice of Democratic leaders in the Senate, launched a one-man filibuster to end the peactime military draft, forcing the administration to cut a deal that allowed the draft to expire in 1973.
In 1972, Gravel sought the Democratic nomination for vice president, winning the votes of 226 delegates at the Miami convention that nominated George McGovern for president. He would be reelected to the Senate with ease in the "Watergate election" of 1974, only to be defeated in the Reagan landslide of 1980.
In recent years, Gravel has been an outspoken advocate for democratic reforms, particularly a Constitutional amendment that would allow for national referendums on major public policy issues. He is, as well, a proponent of radical tax reform initiatives, such as the replacement of corporate and individual income taxes with a 23 percent national sales tax on goods and services.
Gravel plans to talk about those reforms in his campaign for the Democratic nod, but he will also highlight his passionate opposition to the Iraq War, which he frequently compares to Vietnam, and to the secrecy and dishonesty of the Bush administration, which he suggests is worse in many senses than what he saw during the Nixon years.
After the indictment last fall of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, I. "Scooter" Libby, as part of the ongoing investigation of moves by the Bush-Cheney administration to punish former Ambassador Joe Wilson for revealing that the president's arguments for going to war with Iraq were unfounded, Gravel said. "This is much more serious [than many of the fights over Nixon's wrongdoing]. What we are talking about here is actually a conspiracy of elements of the Bush administration to hoodwink, or lie, to the American people, so that they could go to war in Iraq. Of course that whole process took advantage of the Congress, and the American people, and the American media."
Though his record is impressive, and his ideas are worthy of discussion, Gravel probably faces an even greater challenge as a 2008 presidential contender than did Tsongas in 1992. Tsongas had been out of the Senate for less than a decade and was still a relatively young man when he waded into a much more fluid contest for the Democratic nomination against former President George Herbert Walker Bush. Gravel left the Capitol more than a quarter century ago and is now 75. He also faces the prospect that at least one current senator who shares many of his concerns about the war and official secrecy, Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, will be in the running. Feingold, who travels to Iowa later this month, has a much higher profile -- especially since he proposed censuring the president -- and is raising money and hiring staff at an aggressive clip.
But Gravel is experience, articulate and, above all, gutsy. And if he gets into a few of the higher-profile debates with Feingold and a group of other Democrats that could include New York Senator Hillary Clinton, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards and others, the former senator from Alaska will hold his own. At the very least Mike Gravel begins with the promise, like that offered by Paul Tsongas back in the early 1990s, that with him in the running the Democratic debates are likely to be broader and better than they would be without him.
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade. He is currently the editor of the editorial page of Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times. Nichols is the author of two books: It's the Media, Stupid and Jews for Buchanan.
© 2006 The Nation