Two weeks ago, on June 26, 2021, the world lost former United States Senator Mike Gravel. He was 91 years old.
Gravel had served in the Senate for 12 years, from 1969 to 1981. The most notable part of Gravel’s tenure as a U.S. senator was his decision to read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional record. Not only did that do a great public service, but it highlighted one aspect of Gravel’s character and legacy that lasted all these decades: his anti-imperialism.
It is that anti-imperialism that I like most about Gravel, but that part of his character was also what brought him the most scorn from the media, his own party, and ruling class in general. In this post, I would like to talk about the things I learned about Gravel, his legacy, and share a fitting tribute to Gravel that his daughter and others gave recently.
I was inspired to write this (albeit late) post after seeing a livestream from Katie Halper. During the nearly 2-hour session, she talked to Lynne Mosier (Gravel’s daughter from his marriage to Rita Martin) and Daniel Ellsberg, the former Rand Corporation contractor who leaked the Pentagon Papers 50 years ago.
Mike Gravel’s Early Life
Some outlets shared information about Mike Gravel’s life, but, of course, he offered more information on his website (MikeGravel.com) and in various interviews. Here are some highlights.
Mike Gravel was born Maurice Robert Gravel in Springfield, Massachusetts, on May 13, 1930. Gravel was born to two French-Canadian immigrants, Alphonse and Marie, and he was the third of five children.
He was held back a grade because he had poor reading skills due to severe dyslexia. At the time, Gravel’s dyslexia went undiagnosed. (It was not until his son, Martin, was in his teens and diagnosed that Gravel realized that he, too, had dyslexia.) However, Gravel was able to flourish in life due to his memory development and impromptu speaking.
Mike Gravel developed an interest in civics in his early teens when his older brothers were working with their father in what Gravel described as “house painting and general construction/rehabilitation business” (“Mike’s Biography”). Gravel started working on local and state political campaigns when he was just 15 years old. As he revealed in an interview with Ralph Nader, Gravel also began to see himself as a world citizen when, at the age of 17, he read The Anatomy of Peace by Emery Reed.
Gravel’s father instilled a strong work ethic in his children, and throughout his college years, Mike Gravel was always employed. He was a full-time janitor and a caddy at a local golf course during his freshman year. During his sophomore year, Gravel worked full-time as a clerk for Buxton, Inc. While at Columbia University, Gravel worked full-time as a clerk at Bankers Trust on Wall Street then as a taxi driver.
Between his sophomore and junior college years, Gravel was in the United States Army, where he served from 1951 to 1954. While in Germany, Gravel was Adjutant in the Communications Intelligence Service. He also served as a Special Agent in the Counter-Intelligence Corps in France (“Mike’s Biography”).
Gravel’s Early Political Career
In 1956, Mike Gravel moved to Alaska, where he planned to run for office. During his first two years in the territory (which would become a state in 1959), Gravel worked as a brakeman on the Alaska Railroad, and he opened his own real estate office after becoming a broker.
Gravel ran his first political campaign in 1958 for the Alaska Territorial Legislature. He lost that race, as well as a 1959 race for the Anchorage City Council. His first taste of electoral success came in 1962 when he ran for the Alaska State House of Representatives. He was a state rep for four years (1963-66), serving as House Speaker for the last two (“Mike’s Biography”).
Gravel’s National Political Career, 1966-1981
Gravel ran for the United States House of Representatives in 1966, but he lost in a primary. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 1968, and he was successful.
In the 1968 race, Gravel defeated the incumbent Sen. Ernest Gruening, a former territorial governor, in the Democratic primary. Gravel defeated his Republican rival, Elmer E. Rasmuson, in the general election (Clymer).
Gravel served in the Senate from 1969 to 1981. During his stint in the Senate, Gravel served on the Finance, Interior, Environmental, and Public Works Committees. He also chaired subcommittees on buildings and grounds, energy, water resources, and environmental pollution (“Mike Gravel”).
The Pentagon Papers
Mike Gravel was best known for reading the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record, and the story behind it is interesting, as well.
As Daniel Ellsberg discussed numerous times, he had out to several news outlets and lawmakers to help publicize the study concerning the Vietnam War that he had worked on. There were no takers in Congress. The New York Times and The Washington Post published a limited number of pages by mid-June 1971, but they stopped after behind hit with injunctions.
Ellsberg ultimately found a way to get the papers to Gravel through Washington Post reporter Ben Bagdikian. Gravel tried to use a filibuster to read the papers in Congress, but Republicans prevented him from doing so. On the evening of June 29, 1971, Gravel used an obscure subcommittee he chaired that dealt with buildings and grounds to read the papers in front of the gathered members of the press. He read as much as he could in three hours until he emotionally broke down and couldn’t physically continue.
At the end of the irregular meeting, Gravel entered 7,000 pages of the papers into the Congressional record. Beacon Press, the publication arm of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, published The Senator Gravel Edition of the Pentagon Papers in 1972.
The Effective End of Gravel’s Political Career
Gravel’s years as a U.S. senator were tumultuous, at best. He was known to be brash at times, even among his Democratic peers, particularly on issues regarding Alaska. He had earned the ire of environmentalists and Ted Stevens (the other Alaska senator) by refusing to vote for legislation that protected large swaths of pristine land in the state, let alone vote for a compromise. Gravel’s actions eventually led to executive action by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 and the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
Mike Gravel ultimately lost his reelection bid in 1980 based on his stances on various Alaskan issues, by burning bridges, and due to issues with his fundraising. Alaskans remembered Gravel’s stances on development and fishing, and he had built no Democratic base in the state. Gravel was also dealing with questions of taking money from political action committees tied to oil interests. He also drew some controversy by suggesting that his Democratic challenger, Clark Gruening (Ernest Gruening’s grandson), was accepting money from “special interests.”
Additionally, Gravel not only angered Stevens, but Barney Gottstein, a former fundraiser for Gravel. (The Senator had voted for a weapons deal with Egypt in 1978. This did not sit well with Gottstein, a supporter of Israel.) Both Stevens and Gottstein supported the primary challenge from Clark Gruening. The younger Gruening beat Gravel but ultimately fell in the general election to the Republican challenger, Frank Murkowski.
Gravel stayed out of politics for the better part of 25 years, only running again in 2006 — for president.
Gravel’s Presidential Runs (2008 & 2020)
Gravel ran for president in the 2008 and 2020 cycles knowing full well that he would not win. He had to be convinced both times by friends and admirers, but the point was to bring attention to issues he found important.
Gravel’s 2008 Run
In 2006-2007, Gravel ran as a Democrat, and he wanted to highlight anti-imperialism and direct democracy.
By 1990, Gravel realized that direct democracy was preferable to the system of government we currently have. As part of his push for direct democracy, he incorporated two California non-profit corporations, Direct Democracy and Philadelphia II. Both corporations have the mission of enacting the National Citizens Initiative for Democracy (NCID), which the people can enact in a process that is like the ratification of the Constitution. Voters may be able to enact the NCID via Article VII of the Constitution.
Gravel ultimately decided to run in 2006 because a close friend and direct democracy supporter asked him to put a spotlight on NCID. Gravel turned 76 years old that year, and he released a memorable campaign ad entitled “Rock.”
Gravel’s most memorable moment came during the first Democratic debate on April 26, 2006, when he took Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden to task for their foreign policy rhetoric.
Gravel was no longer allowed to participate after the third Democratic debate. He would later run as a Libertarian, but he could not garner that nomination.
Gravel’s 2020 Run
In 2019, two teens, Henry Williams (then 19 and a freshman at Columbia University) and David Oks (then 18 and a senior in high school, also in New York) approached Gravel about making a run for president. Gravel thought it was a bad idea (he turned 88 that year), but the teens convinced him that his age was not a problem. They had done their research on Gravel, and they wanted him to highlight important issues.
Gravel gave them control of his Twitter account, and the two got to work. The teens no idea if Gravel could even make it to a debate, but they hired some other campaign staff as the debates neared. The Gravel campaign was able to meet the donation threshold, but it was unable to meet the polling threshold. The DNC kept Gravel out of the debates despite allowing candidates like Bill DeBlasio, Tim Ryan, and Michael Bennet to make some debates.
Gravel officially ended his campaign in August 2019, and he gave a dual endorsement for Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard. In the meantime, his two protégés transformed his Twitter account and began a new project: The Gravel Institute.
Gravel on the Issues
Besides anti-imperialism and direct democracy, these are some issues that Gravel ran on in 2008 and 2020:
- Universal health care
- A “fair tax”
- Ending the war on drugs
- Abolishing the Electoral College
- Enforcing 12-year terms for all federal judges
- Housing as a human right
- National charters for all corporations
In addition, Gravel supported transforming the American economic system into one that was socialistic. While giving an interview with the Ralph Nader Radio Hour, Gravel even differentiated between what he called “Democratic Socialism” and “Republican Socialism.” Gravel effectively nodded in favor of “pointed out how well a social safety net worked in Scandinavian countries. On the other hand, the brand of socialism that Republicans supported was corporate in nature.
When you look at that platform, Gravel was more in line with Bernie Sanders than most of the other Democratic candidates, so the endorsement for Sanders made perfect sense.
How the Media Treated Gravel in Life and Death
As major media outlets published obituaries for Gravel, one thing was clear: His anti-imperialism and many of his other views were not welcome. Some outlets decided to refer to Gravel as someone of an anomaly in their titles, while others just used the Associated Press’s obituary for their pages.
Mike Gravel Obituary Titles
Here are a few titles that I saw from legacy news outlets.
Mike Gravel, former US senator for Alaska, dies at 91 (AP News): The AP News article was the most even-handed, but it was particularly dry, and it lacked information about the Gravel Institute, which I will discuss below.
Mike Gravel, Unconventional Two-Term Alaska Senator, Dies at 91 (The New York Times): The New York Times’ obituary was particularly notable because it was written in advance by Adam Clymer, a writer who himself had died a couple a years before its publication.
Mike Gravel, gadfly senator from Alaska with flair for the theatrical, dies at 91 (The Washington Post): The Washington Post title refers to Gravel as a “gadfly,” which is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a person who stimulates or annoys other people especially by persistent criticism.” Personally, I suspect that there is special emphasis on “annoys” which these outlets, given Gravel’s views on imperialism, et al.
BTW, CBS news reposted AP News’ content, but used this title:
How the Same Outlets Handled the News of Donald Rumsfeld’s Death
Compare these titles to obituaries written for Donald Rumsfeld, who died three days after Gravel did:
Rumsfeld, a cunning leader who oversaw a ruinous Iraq war (AP News): Compared to the obituary Gravel received from AP News, Rumsfeld’s AP News obituary was credited to a writer, overwhelmingly positive, and glowing. The writer of this piece, Robert Burns, used adjectives like “witty,” “ambitious,” and “politically cunning.” He glossed over the negative aspects of Rumsfeld’s career, including the Abu Ghraib scandal, and blamed Rumsfeld’s demise on “anti-war sentiments.”
Donald H. Rumsfeld, Defense Secretary During Iraq War, Is Dead at 88 (The New York Times): It appears that NYT changed their headline from earlier.
Donald H. Rumsfeld, influential but controversial Bush defense secretary, dies at 88 (The Washington Post): This obituary borrowed heavily from the Associated Press, so it was equally glowing.
Of course, there have been other articles at WaPo that are more critical of Rumsfeld, but on June 30, Teen Vogue was harsher than many mainstream news outlets:
The Point I’m Making
The way in which the United States treats certain well-known figures shows its values, and its values are out of whack. Anti-imperialists are often ignored if not outright ridiculed while hegemons and war criminals are held in high regard.
Mike Gravel’s Legacy
I don’t think it’s easy for me to sum up Mike Gravel’s legacy on my own, so I will show this from multiple angles, along with my thoughts:
- What Gravel said about himself.
- What Gravel wrote.
- What his daughter said about him.
- The effect Gravel had on Williams and Oks.
What Mike Gravel Said About His Own Legacy
These are some of the things that Mike Gravel listed as his greatest legislative accomplishments:
- Alaskan high school system. While Gravel was in the Alaska House of Representatives, he authored legislation that set up a structure and budget for a regional high school system in rural Alaska. Instead of attending the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ school outside the state, indigenous students could attend school closer to home.
- The Alaska Pipeline. In 1973, Mike Gravel introduced an amendment that allowed Congress to make a policy decision regarding the construction of the Alaska Oil Pipeline. The amendment was passed by one vote. The Alaska Oil Pipeline accounts for 20% of the U.S. oil supply.
- Cannikin nuclear tests. Gravel claimed that the Pentagon had planned five calibration tests for nuclear missile warheads under the seabed of the North Pacific at Amchitka Island, Alaska from the 1960s and 1970s.
- Opposing nuclear power plants. As a U.S. senator, Mike Gravel opposed the proliferation of nuclear power plants across the United States.
- Ending the military draft. Even though Gravel ran to the right of Gruening in terms of the Vietnam War, Gravel made it known when he got to Congress that he was against the war. Part of that resistance was letting the military draft, which was instituted in 1947, expire. It was set to expire in 1971, and Gravel staged a one-man filibuster to avoid an extension. The Nixon administration extended it to 1973, after which it expired.
- AGSOG. As a U.S. Senator, Gravel authored the General Stock Ownership Corporation (GSOC). He also brought about a ballot initiative for the 1980 election to establish the Alaska General Stock Ownership Corporation (AGSOG). That ballot initiative failed but it may have led to the creation of Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend program. Now, proceeds from the state’s pipeline partly go to Alaska residents in the form of a universal basic income.
Gravel also listed four books that he authored and co-authored:
- Jobs and More Jobs (Authored)
- Citizen Power (Authored)
- A Political Odyssey: The Rise of American Militarism and One Man’s Fight to Stop It (Co-Authored with Joe Lauria)
- The Kingmakers: How the Media Threatens Our Security and Our Democracy (Co-Authored with Dr. David Eisenbach)
Gravel’s daughter, Lynne Mosier, mentioned that her father’s second wife, Whitney, was the breadwinner and helped to finance Mike’s endeavors. This was especially true after he fell ill. Whitney Gravel was also an editor for her husband.
What Lynne Mosier Said About Her Father’s Legacy
When Lynne Mosier appeared on The Katie Halper Show, she talked about her father and gave some background information. She was a young child in 1971, and on the day her father read the Pentagon Papers, she was coming home from school. She didn’t quite understand what was going on, but she knew that it was very important.
Even though Mosier went through an Ayn Rand phase, her father set her straight. Mosier once complained about “welfare mothers ruining everything,” and her father corrected her by pointing out how large corporations, particularly Big Oil corporations, were taking money from the government. Overall, Lynne is proud of her father’s legacy, she saw him as a “great dad,” and she holds many of the same views.
Mike Gravel’s Effect on His Young Campaign Managers
Gravel left a lasting impression on Henry Williams and David Oks, Gravel’s two 2020 campaign managers. Williams and Oks ran Gravel’s campaign as they saw fit, but Gravel iterated that the campaign needed to honor his values.
The Gravel Institute, founded by Williams and Oks, will also carry on its namesake’s legacy. The institute has a mission to oppose Prager U (a right-wing company that dispenses (dis-)information and propaganda) while espousing the values that Mike Gravel had. This is the first video from the Institute:
I think that the best offering so far is this video with David Cross:
What I Think About Mike Gravel’s Legacy
I agree with Gravel’s push for direct democracy. As it stands now, Congress does not represent us. I think the United States could benefit from an educated, informed populace and that populace should weigh in on policies that directly affect them. Outsourcing that responsibility to members of Congress has proven ineffective and often, a waste of time and resources.
I do not agree with all of Gravel’s views or actions as a U.S. senator. Among the issues, I disagree with are his pushing for an oil pipeline in Alaska and his refusal to vote for legislation to protect lands in the state from drilling and development. In fact, the oil pipeline, although it does pay dividends for residents, has leaked several times.
That said, Mike Gravel’s legacy is one about anti-imperialism. I am grateful that he read the Pentagon papers into the record, that he stood against the Vietnam War, and that he continued to speak out against wars of aggression.
Ultimately, Gravel’s decision to share the Pentagon Papers with the public is important, especially today. More and more, corporate news outlets are just refusing to report on important information as of late. This is a relatively new development, and it should scare you.
Did you know that the key witness in the Julian Assange case lied about key accusations against the publisher? It’s true, and none of the main outlets in the West have reported on it. Could you imagine how things would be if no news outlet reported on the Pentagon Papers?
Yeah, this was longer than I thought, but hopefully, you can see how rich and interesting Mike Gravel’s life was. I hope that anyone who reads this and knew little about him before can recognize how people like him are treated by the establishment, which includes the mainstream press.
We need more people to examine imperialism and to question the status quo. We might be familiar with the system as it is, but that does not mean that things should stay as they are, or that these conditions are acceptable.
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