Mike Gravel Was on the Right Side of History

While Mike Gravel never earned the respect of the political establishment, he passed from this Earth with his conscience untormented by the ghosts of screaming civilians whose lives those in Washington regularly snuff out with their afternoon coffee.

Sen. Mike Gravel speaks during a presidential candidates forum in 2007 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Former Alaska senator Mike Gravel, who died yesterday at age ninety-one, spent much of his political career and public platform trampling institutional niceties, customs, and tradition for the sake of the principles he held dear. Naturally, it earned him hostility, mockery, and dismissal, which persisted even as core parts of his politics have been welcomed into the mainstream. 

One need only look at the way two of the country’s most influential newspapers responded to the news of the former senator’s death. For the New York Times, he was “an unabashed attention-getter” prone to “grandstanding,” whose most notable achievement was the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline finished in 1977. For the Washington Post, he was a “gadfly” who achieved “brief renown” when he famously read thousands of pages of the top secret Pentagon Papers into the congressional record. Both stressed the failures of his 2008 and 2020 campaigns, with the Times in particular seeming to delight in telling readers about the infinitesimal votes he was able to muster that first run. 

It’s familiar terrain for Gravel. Back in 2007, he was similarly dismissed, despite searing himself into political memory with his brutal assessment of his fellow candidates in that year’s first Democratic debate. Talking into a finely tailored wall of laughter and smiling condescension, Gravel delivered a rare moment of political truth-telling in televised politics:

It’s like going into the Senate. You know, the first time you get there, you’re all excited, and “My god, how did I ever get here?” Then about six months later, you say, “How the hell did the rest of them get here?” And I gotta tell you, after standing up with them, some of these people frighten me. They frighten me. When you have mainline candidates who turn around and say there’s nothing off the table with respect to Iran. That’s code for using nukes. 

Gravel concluded by insisting “we should plain get out” of Iraq, that the United States had no right to tell Iraqis how to run their country, and that “the only thing worse than a soldier dying in vain is more soldiers dying in vain.” Later, after then-candidate Barack Obama insisted he’d reserve the right to wage a war on Iran to stop it from acquiring nuclear arms, Gravel pointed to the US government’s own nuclear expansion. “Barack, who do you want to nuke?” he asked. “I’m not planning to nuke anybody right now, Mike, I promise,” Obama replied to much laughter. 

Gravel’s decision to forego the customary empty pageantry of the debates earned him instant scorn. “We Do Not Understand What the Hell Mike Gravel Is Talking About,” wrote New York magazine. The New Republic put it at the top of the list of its “most idiotic moments from the 2008 primary debates.” 

Yet Gravel was right, as suggested by not only the uptick of thousands of views for his website and campaign videos the appearance garnered, but by the fact that, years later, it’s still the only thing anyone remembers or cares to recall about the entire insipid affair. Obama had said those words. They were code for the threat of nuclear war. And for all the mockery it earned, it was Gravel’s position — that the United States shouldn’t drop a nuke on a far weaker country it had spent decades brutalizing the population of — that was the sensible, moderate one, and Obama’s the extreme, unserious one. 

You could almost go down the list of Gravel’s policy ideas that year and see the things that marked him as a kooky sideshow then — from backing marriage equality and immediate withdrawal from Iraq, to opposing the war on drugs and military adventures that sapped resources from the domestic sphere — having somewhere along the way morphed into fairly uncontroversial articles of faith for vast swaths of the US public and commentariat. 

Here are a few things you might not have learned about Gravel yesterday because they don’t work as well as punchlines. For all the accusations of grandstanding, Gravel was genuinely morally anguished over Washington’s monstrous war in Vietnam (“We should all cry over it,” he once said), and he regularly flouted meaningless senatorial rules and customs to try and bring it to an end. To this day, no lawmakers have shown close to Gravel’s courage or principles in attempting to use their positions to stop the endless overseas death that emanates from the US Capitol. As one lawyer who had dealt with Gravel on the other side of an issue once put it:

I have found him at times to be an unconscionably bloody fighter, both on and off the Senate floor. But I have always regarded him as a salesman. He’s a fellow who likes to come up with a quick solution and sell it hard. It almost becomes a physical thing with him at times.

Among his actions were not just using his congressional immunity to publicly release the Pentagon Papers — at the time their publication in the newspapers had been halted by court order — but a host of other unprecedented moves that made him persona non grata in the clubby, decorum-obsessed Senate: working with antiwar activists, paralyzing the Senate with constant procedural delays, and trying incessantly to defund the Vietnam War. In one especially notable moment, he escorted a group of more than a hundred antiwar protesters into the Capitol and outside the Senate chamber to agitate for its end. 

But as Gravel said decades later, he wasn’t too bothered about being shunned by the Washington cocktail circuit. When he had first arrived in the Senate, he had gone to one of the prayer breakfasts all his colleagues attended, until he “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,” he said. 

If not for Mike Gravel, the military draft might never have ended. Gravel spent five months as a one-man wrecking ball trying to topple conscription for the war, and succeeded in filibustering the extension of the draft to death in 1971, partly by reading the Pentagon Papers. Though the draft was narrowly extended over the filibuster a few months later, with sixty-one votes, its earlier defeat at Gravel’s hands marked its days as numbered: with clearly dim prospects of extending it again two years later, Nixon moved in earnest to fulfill his campaign promise of transitioning to an all-volunteer army, and the government dramatically scaled back its draft numbers over the next two years, until the draft lapsed.

Gravel played an important role in establishing what became Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend program, a kind of universal basic income funded off of Alaska’s fossil-fuel exploitation. And he had earlier experienced a meteoric rise to the Alaskan state legislature speakership, where he presided over, among other things, the creation of a rural high school program that let Indigenous kids get local education instead of being shipped off sometimes thousands of miles to other parts of the country.

This doesn’t make him a saint, of course. Gravel was indeed a fierce fighter for fossil-fuel interests in the Senate in the 1970s, and was not immune to fundraising off them and all the sleazy pay-for-play shenanigans that came with that. Yet, ironically, his stubbornness on the matter unwittingly spurred one of the major executive actions of environmental protection in presidential history, and by 2007, he had shifted dramatically on the issue, running on what was then an aggressive climate platform to prevent what he later called “planetary suicide.” 

Gravel’s curmudgeonly distaste for the pomp of presidential campaigns, his early virality on the internet, and his willingness to plainly tell the public what no one else had the guts to all doubtless helped clear the way for future dark horse left-wing candidates to not just try it themselves but be taken seriously while doing it. He lived long enough to see the reasonable and morally principled beliefs he once advocated to mockery earn widespread acceptance. 

And while he never earned the respect of the political establishment, he passed from this Earth with his conscience untormented by the ghosts of screaming civilians whose lives those in Washington regularly snuff out with their afternoon coffee, as the current president likely just did the very day of Gravel’s passing. And that’s a luxury those who sniggered at him on the debate stage will not get to enjoy.