Mike Gravel Obituary | American politics
Mike Gravel, the iconoclastic two-time Democratic US senator from Alaska, who died at the age of 91, was best known for the day in 1971 when, at a meeting of the Senate Construction and Land Subcommittee, he read for three hours from the Pentagon. Papers, and put the entire document in the Congress file.
The Journals, an official 7,000-page study of the Vietnam War that contradicted virtually everything successive governments had told the public, had been disclosed to the newspapers by one of its authors, Daniel Ellsberg, but the administration Nixon had obtained an injunction against their publication.
The day after Gravel’s reading, the United States Supreme Court, in New York Times Co v. United States, overturned this prior restriction and the articles were published, including Gravel’s own copy, by Beacon Press.
Although he opposed much of American foreign policy, Gravel was also a business-oriented politician, whose main legislative achievement in the Senate may have been to exempt the trans pipeline. -Alaska from the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 introduced by the powerful Democratic Senator Henry Jackson.
The 1973 Gravel exemption required a casting vote from Republican Vice President Spiro Agnew to pass. Gravel could be a divisive force in his own party, and after his Senate career ended he was often dismissed in Washington as a gadfly, but his shifting positions on the left-right spectrum were not unusual in the Alaskan politics, where he also had to overcome the idea that he remained an alien.
Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, he was the son of French Canadian immigrants, Alphonse Gravel, a builder, and Marie (née Bourassa), and spoke French at home in his early years. He struggled in school – preparation for the Assumption, in Worcester – and at 18 he decided to join the Israeli army fighting in Palestine.
In New York, seeking advice on how to travel to Israel, he meets Alexandra Tolstoy, the novelist’s daughter, who is involved in helping Russian immigrants. She told him to finish school. He returned to Assumption, where an English teacher helped him cope with dyslexia and accompanied him until he graduated.
After one year at Assumption College and two at American International College in Springfield, he faced Korean War conscription and enlisted in the military. He served in Germany and France, where his knowledge of French led him to spy on the French Communist Party.
After his release, he received a degree in economics (1956) from the School of General Studies at Columbia University, New York. Moving to Alaska, which is not yet a state, he worked on the railroads, sold real estate, and became active in the Democratic Party. In 1958, he lost his first electoral campaign, for the chamber of representatives of the territory. The following year, he married Rita Martin and embarked on real estate development. That year, too, Alaska joined the union.
In 1962 his company went bankrupt, but he was elected to the State House, as president in his second term. In 1968, he entered the U.S. Senate primaries against Ernest Gruening, one of only two senators (along with Wayne Morse of Oregon) to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that allowed President Lyndon Johnson to fully involve the US forces in Vietnam. Gravel positions itself as a supporter of the war effort. He won the primary, and despite Gruening’s candidacy as an independent, he went on to win a three-way race for the Senate.
In Washington, Gravel established himself as a critic of the war, twice fighting extensions of military conscription, once by obstruction. He opposed the authorization of nuclear tests in Alaska, but also opposed legislation to designate massive amounts of Alaskan land as protected national development parks. In addition to joining Republicans in running the pipeline, he aligned himself with conservative Southern Democrats in preserving the obstruction they cherished to protect “state rights.”
In 1972, Gravel published Citizen Power: A People’s Platform, detailing its positions on all major issues. When presidential candidate George McGovern wanted the Democratic convention to select its vice president by vote, Gravel added to the chaos by naming himself. McGovern ultimately chose Senator Thomas Eagleton as his running mate (although after revelations he had been treated with electroshock for depression, Eagleton was forced to step down).
After winning a second term in the Senate in 1974, Gravel faced scandals when a memo detailing plans to raise money from oil companies was leaked, and when he was accused of being set up in a “sex against votes” scandal (he admitted to having sex, but denied changing votes), which also cost him his marriage. He was defeated in the 1980 Senate primaries by Clark Gruening, Ernest’s grandson, with the help of Republican votes under the Alaska Open Primary System.
After the Senate, Gravel’s career as a real estate developer did not flourish; he lost his Senate pension upon his divorce in 1981. In 1984, he married Whitney Stewart, an assistant to New York Senator Jacob Javits, and his money helped support the couple. Gravel started a foundation to support direct democracy, through referendums, then became president of the Alexis de Tocqueville Foundation, with similar goals.
In 2006, Gravel announced his candidacy for the 2008 presidency, and in the early debates of the Democratic primaries he stole the show, arguing that US foreign policy was neither altruistic nor defensive in nature. The attention did not translate into funding or votes. He switched to the Libertarian Party, which he now seemed more naturally in tune with what was becoming his increasingly populist position, but failed to win their nomination.
Although he made gestures towards the 2016 and 2020 Democratic presidential elections, his efforts were crippled by his propensity to take positions, on everything from relations with Iran to UFOs and 9/11 plots, which pushed him into the gadfly’s territory.
He became the CEO of a company producing medical marijuana and in 2018 released an updated edition of People’s Power. In 2020, he used his remaining campaign funds to found the Gravel Institute to promote progressive politics.
He is survived by his wife and son, Martin, and daughter, Lynne, from his first marriage.