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Maverick Mike Gravel

Joe Lauria

Former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel is running for President in the Democratic primaries. At seventy-six, he has been out of politics for two and a half decades. Now he wants back in. And he's making his strong opposition to the Iraq War the centerpiece of his longshot effort to win the nomination.Gravel's outspoken performance at the first Democratic Presidential debate in South Carolina on April 26 brought him some instant attention.

Gravel said from the podium that the Democrat frontrunners "frightened" him with their refusal to rule out the use of even nuclear weapons against Iran. "Tell me, Barack, who do you want to nuke?" Gravel asked Senator Obama. "Our leaders are promoting delusional thinking when boasting that the United States and Americans are superior to the rest of the world," says the Democratic Presidential candidate.

By the next morning, "the Internet was abuzz with Gravelmania-blogs were burbling and clips showing his debate highlights were circulating online," reports the New York Daily News.

Gravel was merely echoing a position he's been stating for months, only this time the media could not ignore him. He told the Democratic National Committee winter meeting in February that because of the "extreme importance of any decision to go to war," anybody who voted for it "is not qualified to hold the office of President."

Though the Democrats controlled the Senate at the time of the vote, "the fear of opposing a popular warrior President on the eve of a midterm election prevailed," he said. "Political calculations trumped morality, and the Middle East was set ablaze. The Democrats lost in the [2002] election anyway, but the American people lost even more."

Gravel says implicit in Congress's power to declare war is the power to end it, so he wants Congress to pass a law declaring the Iraq War over and shame a filibustering Republican minority into submission.

"It goes to Bush. He has two choices: End the war or veto it. Obviously he'll veto it because the good God told him to invade and keep it going, so God trumps the Congress," Gravel says.

Gravel thinks Bush should be criminally indicted. "He lied to the American people and it has cost us more than 3,000 people," he says. "They have manipulated the powers of government and thousands of people have perished. Until you do that, our leaders will never be disciplined. They will feel like they can get away with anything."

For Gravel, opposing a foolish war is nothing unusual. He cosponsored a resolution in the Senate to cut off funding of the Vietnam War. And on June 29, 1971, even as he was hooked up with a colostomy bag and was hauling two large, black-leather valises, he entered the Senate on a new mission against that war.

"I went onto the floor with the flight bags and put them next to my chair," says Gravel. "Muskie comes over to me and asks, 'What the hell have you got there? The Pentagon Papers?' "

Maine Senator Ed Muskie was on target. Daniel Ellsberg had given Gravel the top-secret Pentagon study detailing government deception in the Vietnam War, which had been published a few days earlier in The New York Times. But the Nixon Justice Department had then shut down further publication with a prior restraint order.

Without a quorum, Gravel was forced into a basement conference room for an emergency session of his Building and Grounds Committee. Gravel read from the Papers until just after midnight on June 30, when he broke down in tears, emotionally distraught over what his country was doing in Vietnam. He de facto declassified more than 4,000 pages. Later that day, the Supreme Court reversed the prior restraint against all publishers but indicated that they would be at risk if they continued to publish.

Gravel not only released the Pentagon Papers and filibustered an end to the draft, he also spearheaded the opposition in the Senate to nuclear weapons testing in Alaska, an issue that led to the creation of Greenpeace. His iconoclastic stands against the draft, government secrecy, American adventurism, and corporate dominance and for public financing of elections, national government by popular ballot initiative, a universal single-payer health care voucher plan, and a national sales tax were essentially laid out while he was still in the Senate. But he believes current times have resurrected those positions and refurbished his relevance.

After emerging from his disillusionment with representative government that stemmed from his 1980 loss in the primaries to State Representative Clark Gruening, Gravel worked in real estate and finance.

He then began a foundation for the study of direct democracy in America. He consulted constitutional experts and conducted ten years of research to come up with what he calls the National Initiative for Democracy. It would greatly expand the power of the initiative process for direct passage of legislation on both the state and federal level.

Gravel says he decided to run for President after a friend suggested it was the only way to get publicity for direct democracy and for his other major issue: what he calls the "fair tax," which would tax all goods and services at 23 percent. This turns some liberals off. But Gravel says his tax would be cushioned by a "prebate"-every citizen would receive a monthly government check to help offset life's basic costs.

Calling himself a maverick, Gravel says, "I am not far left. I'm not far right. I'm eclectic."

He is for a carbon tax on energy companies to fund an international scientific consortium to find alternative energy sources, and he wants to build a nationwide high-speed railway system. He also backs gay marriage and the legalization of drugs. He believes that marijuana should be sold in liquor stores, and that harder drugs should be dispensed only by a doctor's prescription.

But Gravel's foreign policy agenda is what sets him apart from the other Democratic Presidential contenders, except perhaps for Dennis Kucinich.

"We have a military presence in 140 countries," says Gravel, who opposes an aggressive American empire. "Who the hell are we? Who are we afraid of? Are we that paranoid?"

He is the anti-candidate, pricking Americans' exaggerated opinion of themselves, an opinion that the other candidates, the media, and the schools constantly reinforce. Gravel thinks America can change only by dispelling its comforting myth of exceptionalism.

"Our leaders are promoting delusional thinking when boasting that the United States and Americans are superior to the rest of the human race. We are no better and no worse," he says, in a highly unusual pitch for a candidate.

Gravel says "we're number one" is a hollow slogan when the United States is actually number thirty-seven in health care and when 30 percent of students fail to graduate high school.

On the other hand, the United States is number one, he points out, in the production of weapons, consumer spending, government, commercial, and personal debt, the number of prisoners, energy consumption, and environmental pollution.

Gravel's platform would make him a mainstream Social Democrat in Europe. But in America, he's seen as either confused or mad.

Even emissaries of foreign governments dismiss him. Asked what he thought of Gravel, an ambassador from a Central American nation told me: "He's slightly more serious than Pat Paulsen, right?"

Until the South Carolina debate, the American mainstream media ignored him, except for the occasional swipe.

"The larger disaster was the long harangue of former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, a strident critic of almost everything and promoter of a folly-a national initiative process- not even a deranged blogger could love. Someone has to give him the hook before the real debates begin," wrote The Washington Post's David Broder, the dean of American political reporters, about Gravel's speech before the Democratic National Committee in February.

CNN, the New Hampshire Union Leader, and a local television station initially bought Broder's advice and said they would exclude Gravel from a June debate. CNN said in a written statement that Gravel was not invited because he hadn't shown "measurable public support." (According to a mid-March Harris Poll, Gravel, Kucinich, and Senators Joe Biden and Christopher Dodd all had support in the single digits.) But after Gravel's performance in the South Carolina debate, CNN reversed course and invited Gravel, after all.

© 2007 The Progressive Magazine

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