What I learned from Mike Gravel are lessons ignored, even mocked by the establishment, writes Joe Lauria.

I first met Sen. Mike Gravel in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York in early 2006 after a mutual friend told me Gravel was contemplating running for president.

Our Waldorf breakfast lasted four hours. I was surprised that such an American politician existed. He seemed to lack the expected self-importance. More incredibly, I agreed with him on every point of public policy–foreign and domestic. Having been a reporter for decades–I was a correspondent for The Boston Globe at the time–I’d surpassed the average citizen’s cynicism about people in government.

But here was a former United States senator questioning the most fundamental and seemingly unshakeable myths that underpin a brutal status-quo. The central myth, affecting foreign and domestic policy, is that U.S. behavior abroad is driven by an altruistic need to spread democracy and that its vast military machine is defensive in nature. If Americans would be convinced that the opposite is true, the edifice of lies that supports an imperial house of cards could crumble.

Here was someone from the heart of the system vowing to undermine it by declaring–eventually on a debate stage with Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden–that Americans’ motives abroad are avaricious and aggressive, its military offensive, and its consequence death and destruction, not democracy.

It is suicidal for a politician to tell American voters that America’s motives are impure, that they are not the “good guys” in the world, and that money that should be spent on them at home is wasted destroying innocent lives abroad.

But that is what Gravel was prepared to do. He told me of his plan to run for president. He knew he had no chance, but was convinced by others to use the run to promote direct democracy and to tear down the deceptions.

I agreed to cover his campaign to highlight the crucial issues that he was raising that the mainstream would denigrate or ignore.  I was at the National Press Club in Washington when he declared in April 2006, a full two and a half years before the election, and broke the story for the Drudge Report. In his announcement speech Gravel made his pitch for direct democracy. He said:

“Our country needs a renewal–renewal not just of particular policies, or of particular people, but of democracy itself…. Representative government is mired in a culture of lies and corruption. The corrupting influence of money has created a class of professional politicians raising huge sums to maintain their power. These politicians then legislate later in the interests of the corporations and interest groups that put up the money.

Are today’s politicians any more corrupt than those of earlier days? I don’t think so. Most men and women enter public service and begin with an attitude and a concern for the public good. It’s the power they hold that corrupts them. Throwing the rascals out–Democrats or Republicans, or for that matter any party may make us feel a little better, may give us some therapy, but reshuffling the deck won’t make any difference….

Equipping Americans with deliberative lawmaking tools will unleash civic creativity beyond imagination. A partnership of citizen-lawmakers makers with their elected legislators will in fact make representative government … more responsive to the needs of people.”

When an AP reporter asked him what was to stop the people from bankrupting the nation in their self-interest, Gravel told him that in the 100-year record of state initiatives that had never happened and the reason why was because it was the people’s money. Mike firmly believed that if Americans could vote on national policy the troops at the time would come home from Iraq and they’d only vote to send their sons and daughters to die if the U.S. were attacked at home.

I next saw Gravel at a dinner in June that year commemorating the 35th anniversary of his reading of the Pentagon Papers in Congress. The dinner was held at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, where Gravel in June 1971 got a copy of the Papers indirectly from whistleblower Dan Ellsberg, who was at the dinner, disagreeing on minor details of how it all happened.

I soon found myself on the campaign trail with Mike, trudging up the steps of the state capitol in Des Moines, driving through a blizzard at Lake Tahoe after covering the first joint event with the other Democratic candidates and then sitting right behind Michelle Obama and to the right of Sen. Christopher Dodd’s sister at the first Democratic presidential debate in  Orangeburg, South Carolina on April 26, 2007.

Gravel was probably the most talked about candidate after that debate for the things he dared say, such as the war in Iraq “was lost the day George Bush invaded on a fraudulent basis.”

Gravel said some of the other candidates “frightened” him. “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. If I’m president of the United States there will be no pre-emptive wars with nuclear devices. It’s immoral and it’s been immoral for the past 50 years as part of American foreign policy.”

The other candidates laughed and mocked him. “I’m not planning on nuking anybody Mike,” Obama said. On a talk show later, when Obama was asked how tough campaigning is, he said it was very tough when you had to get up on a cold Iowa morning and had to listen to Mike Gravel.

When the debate moderator Brian Williams asked Gravel who exactly frightened him, Mike said:

“The top tier ones. Oh Joe [Biden] I’ll include you too. You have a certain arrogance too. You want to tell the Iraqis how to run their country. I gotta tell you we should just plain get out. It’s their country. They are asking us to leave and we insist on staying there.

You hear that the soldiers will have died in vain. The entire deaths of Vietnam died in vain and they are dying this very second. Do you know what’s worse than a soldier dying in vain? More soldiers dying in vain. That’s what’s worse.”