By Branko Marcetic
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.
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