Gravel the firebrand



BORN: 1930 in Springfield, Mass.; given name Maurice

EDUCATION: B.S., Columbia University

MILITARY SERVICE: U.S. Army, Counter Intelligence Corps, 1951-54


  • 1963-66: Representative, Alaska House of Representatives

  • 1969-81: U.S. senator; served on Finance, Interior, and Environment and Public Works committees

SENATE HIGHLIGHT: In 1971, read more than 4,000 pages of The Pentagon Papers (secret study that showed how the nation was misled about the Vietnam War) into the congressional record

ORGANIZATIONS: Founded The Democracy Foundation, Philadelphia II, Direct Democracy

As 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 in 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.

Earlier this month, Gravel was among three presidential candidates -- the others being Democrat Dennis Kucinich and Republican Duncan Hunter -- that ABC News decided did not meet its criteria for participating in its Jan. 5 New Hampshire debates.

''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 would use to advance his antiwar 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.

''Loose cannon is a good description of Gravel's Senate career,'' said Stephen Haycox, a history professor at the University of Alaska at 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.

''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.''


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