The Strange Career of Mike Gravel

Mike Gravel, 1977

On August 7, 1964, one of Alaska’s first two senators, Ernest Gruening, was one of only two senators to cast a vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The other was the famously stubborn and principled Wayne Morse of Oregon. His anti-war vote caught him a lot of flak, and this combined with his age of 81 in 1968 didn’t help him for reelection. Although Gruening was the presumptive favorite, real estate developer and former Alaska House Speaker Maurice Robert (“Mike”) Gravel (1930-2021) stepped up to challenge him. He was 43 years younger and he emphasized his youth and good looks throughout the campaign while keeping his stance on Vietnam ambiguous, asserting that he was “more in the mainstream of American thought on Vietnam” than Gruening, and later admitted he did this to win the election (Power). This led people to think that Gravel was to Gruening’s right on the subject, when in fact he was on his left. Gruening, who had been one of Alaska’s leading figures for decades before statehood, was defeated in an upset. Although he ran for reelection through a write-in campaign, Gravel won the election in a plurality.

First Term

Although Gravel had a well-grounded reputation as a staunch liberal in his first four years in office, he nonetheless could be independent in his voting. For instance, in 1969 he was the only Democrat not from a Southern or Border state to vote for the nomination of South Carolina’s Clement Haynsworth to the Supreme Court, a man attacked by liberals for his record on labor and civil rights as well as for ethics questions. He would not do the same for G. Harrold Carswell. Gravel presaged the modern era of politics in his propensity for showboating, rather than relying on traditional methods of moving up in the Senate. His most notable attention-getting incident was when he inserted 4,100 pages of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed a pattern of systematic lying by the Johnson Administration on Vietnam to the public and Congress, into the Congressional Record, making them a part of public record. Gravel also unsuccessfully filibustered a proposal to extend the draft for two years in 1971 before a planned end in 1973. He would in his 2008 campaign take credit for stopping or shortening the draft despite 1973 having already been the planned end date. Gravel’s staunch and vocal advocacy against the Vietnam War led to him going on numerous speaking tours, which resulted in a high absentee record. He did, however, defend the status quo on the Senate filibuster, a sore spot for liberals in his record. One journalist said of him, “Loose cannon is a good description of Gravel’s Senate career. He was an off-the-wall guy, and you weren’t really ever sure what he would do” (Westphal). In 1971, both he and Senator Ted Stevens came out against the Milrow and Cannikin nuclear tests, to be detonated under the unpopulated Amchitka Island. They and environmentalist groups feared that the detonations would cause major earthquakes and tsunamis. The tests ultimately were conducted, and no major earthquakes or tsunamis occurred with only minor earthquakes occurring in the aftermath (TIME). Similar to his treatment of his efforts against the draft, Gravel would later claim that his efforts had been responsible for cutting short the tests. He would be a frequent foe of other forms of military spending and would also oppose nuclear anything. Gravel came out against the Anti-Ballistic Missile system in 1971 and opposed continuing construction of nuclear power plants.

In 1972, Gravel, who was French-Canadian by birth, endorsed Senator Edmund Muskie for the presidential nomination, hoping his endorsement would help him among people of French-Canadian extraction in the New Hampshire primary. While Muskie did win the New Hampshire primary, his campaign floundered after. He also made a bid for the vice president nomination, but ultimately Sargent Shriver would be the nominee.

Trans-Alaska Pipeline: Gravel vs. Environmentalists

While Gravel had won praise from environmentalists for his opposition to the Cannikin nuclear test near Alaska, he crossed them in his advocacy for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Gravel won a major victory when his proposal to bar judicial review of the pipeline on environmental grounds, supported by the Nixon Administration, passed by a single vote on July 17, 1973. This halted numerous environmental lawsuits against the pipeline and enabled its construction, crucial to growth in Alaska. Gravel was also a consistent supporter of the oil industry as Alaska was and is an oil state. This would not be the last time he crossed environmentalists.

1974 Reelection

Although Mike Gravel was thought to be in a tough spot for reelection or even renomination in 1974, there were three factors that helped him win reelection. First, he was able to secure key endorsements from organized labor. Second, his victories for Alaska such as the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. And third, the Republicans nominated State Senator C.R. Lewis, who was a leading member of the John Birch Society. Gravel prevailed by over 16 points on Election Day.

Second Term

Allegation of Sex for Votes

In 1976, Gravel was investigated by the federal government over allegations that Rep. Kenneth J. Gray (D-Ill.) had instructed his staff clerk Elizabeth Ray in 1972 to help secure funding for the National Visitor Center in Washington (which was under both men’s subcommittee jurisdictions) by sleeping with him on his houseboat and that he had changed his vote over it (Crewdson). The investigation didn’t prove any such arrangement occurred, and Gravel would many years later admit that he had slept with her, but that it didn’t change any of his votes. He at the time was married to his first wife, and they would divorce in 1981.

The Alaska Lands Bill: Gravel Refuses to Compromise

Jimmy Carter in many ways appealed to environmentalists despite his mixed record. One of the ways he appealed to environmentalists was through his extensive conservation program that strongly impacted the west and resulted in the Sagebrush Rebellion. Gravel was part of this rebellion in his resistance to conservation in Alaska. In 1978, he filibustered to death a compromise Alaska Lands Bill pushed by his Republican colleague Ted Stevens that would open some mining lands and expand ANWR but leaving the coastal plain open to oil development and adding wilderness protections. Gravel did so on his belief that the bill didn’t go far enough in securing routes for transportation corridors for oil (Alaska Historical Society). As a consequence, President Carter would on December 1st issue an executive order using restrictive national monument designations of 56 million acres of land into 17 national monuments and an additional 40 million were withdrawn until the issue of Alaska land development and conservation got a compromise resolution in 1980 (Cole). The land restrictions were incredibly unpopular in Alaska, resulting in protests and acts of civil disobedience. Alaska voters blamed both Carter and Gravel for this outcome. Gravel also lost a key financial backer when he voted for selling F-15 fighter aircraft to Saudi Arabia and spoke passionately against opponents of the sale. The key backer, Barney Gottstein, had been a staunch advocate of Israel. Gravel would later accuse his primary opponent Clark Gruening of receiving funds from “a special interest group”, meaning Jews, as he thought them a special interest group on foreign policy (Greely). Gruening had previously promised not to seek funds from outside interest groups.

The 1980 Election

Senator Gravel’s bid for renomination was complicated by the fact that he had never been a popular figure among the Alaska Democratic establishment due to his defeat of Ernest Gruening as well as his approach on the Alaska land bill. He lost renomination by 11 points on August 26th to Clark Gruening, the former senator’s grandson. Gravel had ultimately lost due to alienating numerous groups as well as his unconstructive approach to Alaska lands legislation. However, even without Gravel’s personal difficulties Alaska was becoming an increasingly Republican state and President Jimmy Carter was deeply unpopular there (he only won 26% of the vote!), resulting in Republican banker Frank Murkowski winning the election. Gravel’s MC-Index score was a 14%. Although on most issues he was left-wing, he proved that on certain issues that were regarded as in the interests of the state of Alaska he was flexible.

Return to Politics

Mike Gravel in 2019

While most former senators tend to go into lobbying or only occasionally speak on political matters, that was not for Gravel. The Iraq War motivated him to return to national politics. In 2003, he spoke on direct democracy at an event hosted by American Free Press and cosponsored by the Holocaust denying journal The Barnes Review, both run by the pro-Nazi Willis Carto. Gravel subsequently apologized for his appearance, stating that he didn’t know they were Holocaust deniers and affirmed that six million Jews were murdered. This would not be the last time he would associate with fringe groups. In 2013, Gravel would attend a conference by the Iranian government on “Hollywoodism” to discuss Iran’s negative portrayals in American media (Botwin). He would also associate himself with Lyndon LaRouche organizations. LaRouche was a conspiracy theorist who maintained a cult of personality through his LaRouche movement, which had both strongly left and right swings.

Run for President

On April 17, 2006, he announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president. His platform included a push for more direct democracy through the creation of a fourth branch of government that would be a legislature in which citizens would vote directly, an immediate pullout from Iraq, a single-payer health care system with coverage for homeopathy and acupuncture, repealing the income tax and replacing it with a national sales tax, term limits, and legalization of same-sex marriage. Gravel would also call for another investigation into 9/11. His participation in the Democratic primary debates resulted in heated moments. When the subject of the possibility of using nuclear weapons in Iran was discussed, Gravel asked Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill)., “Tell me, Barack, who do you want to nuke?” to which Obama replied, “I’m not planning to nuke anybody right now, Mike” (ABC News). He was not permitted to attend the debates after the third one.

Despite his consistently bottom-barrel poll numbers in the Democratic primary, he was one of only three remaining candidates by January 2008. On March 26th, Gravel announced his departure from the Democratic primary, opting instead to seek the nomination of the Libertarian Party. He wrote in an email to his supporters on his decision that the Democratic Party “no longer represents my vision for a great country. It is a party that continues to sustain war, the military-industrial complex and imperialism – all of which I find anathema to my views” (ABC News). Gravel attracted a bit more support, but ultimately came in fourth. After his defeat, he stated, “I just ended my political career. From 15 years old to now, my political career is over, and it’s no big deal. I’m a writer, I’m a lecturer, I’m going to push the issues of freedom and liberty. I’m going to push those issues until the day I die” (Fox News). Despite Gravel’s statements about the Democratic Party, he returned to the fold in 2010.

Criticism of American Foreign Policy and 2020 Run (Sorta)

Gravel had been a critic of American foreign policy since the start of the “War on Terror” and he regarded American actions as amounting to imperialism. Although he had for years associated himself with 9/11 truthers, in 2016 he confirmed his beliefs on the subject when he stated, “There’s no question in my mind that 9/11 was an inside job. We killed 58,000 American servicemen in the Vietnam War and all they did was die in vain. What’s so unusual about killing 3,000 more in order to develop the grist for the mill to empower into infinity the military industrial complex?” (Cheadle)

In 2019, although Gravel had previously concluded that he had “ended” his political career, he was urged by two teenagers to make yet another run for the Democratic nomination despite his advanced age. However, this bid was in truth a symbolic effort to communicate his views nationwide by appearing at the Democratic debates and he would not travel unless it was to the debates. Gravel’s campaign manager was 18-year-old senior David Oks, one of the teenagers who had convinced him to run. He dropped out after it became clear that he wouldn’t make the debate stage given that he didn’t attract enough donor support. He didn’t even endorse himself for president, rather endorsed Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. After he concluded his campaign, Gravel established The Gravel Institute with remaining money he had raised for the campaign, intended to be the left-wing answer to PragerU. This organization has attracted staunchly left-wing figures, including Senator Bernie Sanders and Professor Cornel West. Gravel died on June 26, 2021.


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Graham, D.A. (2019, April 10). Mike Gravel’s Plan to Rock the Democratic Primary. The Atlantic.

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Mike Gravel, former US senator for Alaska, dies at 91. (2021, June 27). ABC News.

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Power, C. (2021, June 27). Mike Gravel, gadfly senator from Alaska with flair for the theatrical, dies at 91. The Washington Post.

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The Amchitka Bomb Goes Off. (1971, November 15). TIME.

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Westphal, D. (2008, January 13). Gravel the Firebrand. The Miami Herald.

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