WASHINGTON — A rookie U.S. senator, Alaska Democrat Mike Gravel, burst onto the Washington scene in the early 1970s breathing fire and brimstone over U.S. involvement in a controversial war. Almost two generations later, he's back at it.
Gravel, 77, once again has unleashed his take-no-prisoners style of politicking, this time on the 2008 Democratic presidential race. In his gruff, blunt, elbow-throwing way, Gravel is railing against the war in Iraq with the same high voltage he used to condemn the one in Vietnam. And just as in the 1970s, he's getting little respect.
Gravel has raised scant money and, after making a few early appearances at candidate debates, is conducting a barely visible campaign aimed mainly at YouTube viewers and radio talk-show audiences.
"I'm being marginalized again," said Gravel in an interview. "The comparison between Vietnam (and Iraq) is uncanny. There's not an ounce of difference. And yet people don't seem to want to hear it. I think I disturb people right now."
Mike Gravel has been disturbing people for a long time.
Not long after he won a surprise election to the U.S. Senate in 1968, Gravel emerged as one of the Vietnam War's sharpest critics. Shocking the Washington establishment, he ordered top-secret government documents into the Congressional Record and led a one-man filibuster in the Senate to end the military draft.
Although Gravel already had earned a reputation as a maverick while serving in the Alaska legislature, little in his background hinted at the spectacular tactics he'd use to advance his anti-war crusade.
Raised in Massachusetts, the son of French Canadian immigrants, Gravel (the accent is on the second syllable) enlisted in the Army before beginning a series of eclectic jobs: He drove taxis in New York, clerked on Wall Street and worked as a brakeman on the Alaska Railroad before starting a real estate and investment business in Anchorage.
Gravel's entry into politics was rocky. His election to the Alaska House came after he lost two local elections. Then he lost a third time, bidding for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1966, before he unseated U.S. Sen. Ernest Gruening in the 1968 Democratic primary and went on to win the general election. When they rejected the anti-war Gruening, Alaska voters had little hint that Gravel would emerge as an even fiercer opponent of the war.
Little more than two years into his Senate career, Gravel made dramatic headlines when he entered into the Congressional Record the so-called "Pentagon Papers," a series of secret government reports that chronicled United States failures in Vietnam. Unable to get past procedural hurdles in the Senate, Gravel called a meeting of the Buildings and Grounds committee he chaired and ordered the documents entered into the Congressional Record.
In the same year, 1971, Gravel carried on a five-month Senate filibuster against the military draft, which ultimately played a role in its 1973 demise.
It would be years and even decades later, Gravel said, before his maverick actions would begin to earn widespread respect. In the heat of the turbulent 1970s, though, his political standing at home was always shaky. Although he won re-election in 1974, he was knocked off in the 1980 Democratic primary — ironically by the grandson of the incumbent that Gravel had derailed 12 years earlier.
"Loose cannon is a good description of Gravel's Senate career," said Stephen Haycox, a history professor at the University of Alaska-Anchorage. "He was an off-the-wall guy, and you weren't really ever sure what he would do."
In addition to his dramatic actions over Vietnam, Haycox said, Gravel also had "a lot of crackpot ideas" on how to reshape Alaska, including a proposal to create an entire new city under a Plexiglas dome.
But Haycox also said that Gravel left a mark on history because of his emotional personality and his willingness to take risks that virtually no other politician would accept.
Now Gravel is out there again, storming through talk-show interviews about Iraq, ripping his Democratic opponents and telling audiences that he's working on his "anger management."
It's not clear how hard he's trying at that last task.
"I'm entitled at my age to get angry," he said. "How do you feel about torture, about countries who are no threat to us? With what's going on in the world today, if you're not angry, you have no heartbeat."
ON THE WEB
Mike Gravel's official campaign site