“Blow Up Guantanamo, Recognize Cuba, and Withdraw from Iraq”: An Interview with Mike Gravel

The former senator and one-time Democratic presidential candidate explains why both Obama and McCain are cut from the same imperialist cloth, and what he thinks of fellow Alaskan Sarah Palin’s rise.



You might remember Mike Gravel as the cantankerous 78-year-old who shook up the early Democratic debates with his fiery denunciations of the other candidates—“Some of these people frighten me, they frighten me!” he said at the first debate. Maybe you saw his many YouTube videos or read his blogs—an effective and cheap way of talking about policy for a candidate who often took the bus to get to his campaign events. But Gravel also has a long record of public service: Speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives for two years, and a U.S. Senator for Alaska from 1969-1981. He famously released the Pentagon Papers, official government plans and memoranda concerning the Vietnam War, and filibustered to end the draft after President Nixon proposed a two-year extension in 1971. Since founding the Democracy Foundation in 1989, Gravel has worked to promote the National Initiative, which would allow for voter-initiated legislation at the national level. I talked to Sen. Gravel this week by phone.

SPLICE TODAY: What are some of your thoughts on your 2008 presidential campaign? Do you think anyone else was saying the things you were saying?

MIKE GRAVEL: Well, obviously Dennis Kucinich was anti-war, but I didn’t think on balance that he was all that effective on the issue. He’s run for president now for, what, six years? And I must say that I’m not that effective on the issue either. The difference is that I have a solution other than just making a speech. That applies to not only Kucinich but to Ron Paul and others who were anti-war. I brought into the campaign the issue of American Imperialism and the Military Industrial Complex and said, look, representative government is broken. Well, Kucinich and others tell us representative government is the solution, but they’re wrong. The Democratic Party is a war party just like the Republican Party.

If Obama gets elected you’re going to see the same approach—you know, you talk about moving some troops out of Iraq and into Afghanistan, this is American Imperialism. You’re going to see continued support for NATO, which is a device to continue the arms race with Russia. This is more of the same.

Now with George Bush you saw the extreme of this; we’re gonna move away from the extreme, but it’s going to be the same American imperialist policies, and that is not a solution to the problem of war. The solution of course is to change the American way of thinking, which is founded on fear—fear that’s been induced for the last 50 years. The only way to change the American way of thinking is to empower the American people to become lawmakers, so that they can vote on the issues that affect their lives and in that way reset political priorities.

Now will the American people do this? I think so. I think that if they had the power, they would rise to a level of maturity that would allow them to break away from the skewed priorities brought about by the Military Industrial Complex. Now they’ll make mistakes as they do this, but those mistakes would be corrected rapidly.

ST: You’re talking about the National Initiative for Direct Democracy that you founded?

MG: Yeah, that’s the solution. Like I said, these other people don’t offer a solution. They talk about representative government. They say we’ve got to elect good people to office. Well, hell, we’ve been electing good people to office for over 200 years and it hasn’t done anything, we’re still same old, same old.

ST: Can you tell us about the National Initiative? How would that work exactly?

MG: It’s legislation that I’ve written to directly involve the people in the affairs of government. I was informed by similar initiative procedures in 24 states, all enacted at the turn of the 20th century, before World War I, and also by similar initiative procedures in Switzerland and Uruguay at the local level. It took me 10 years to come up with the National Initiative. It’s made up of a Constitutional Amendment and a Federal statute and sets up legislative procedures that are copied from the Congress and based on my experiences as Speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives and as a United States Senator. It equips the people to be able to enact law and to participate in their own self-governance in partnership with their elected officials at all levels of government. An Electoral Trust is set up to oversee the initiatives. The people need a procedure to be able to function as a government and that procedure is the National Initiative.

It’s interesting: the Swiss were the first to develop the Federal system back in the middle ages. We copied their system here in American with our Constitution. And then the Swiss copied us with their 1848 Constitution by bringing the people in. But, you see, they never really brought the people in in an actionable fashion until the turn of the 20th century. And at the same time we were doing it here, and so was Uruguay. So you’ve got Switzerland, Uruguay, and the United States all working in procedures for direct initiative within a generation of each other. All I’ve done is build on that. We all stand on what those before us have done.

ST: Have you received much support for the National Initiative?

MG: Well, I ran for president because I wanted to make the American people aware of the National Initiative and it worked, it brought a lot of attention to it. But you’ve got to appreciate that the body politic, that is, the representatives in public office all over the country, they don’t understand the National Initiative and when they do understand it they don’t support it. They don’t believe that the citizens who they themselves represent are knowledgeable enough. There’s no reason for this. They’re looking at it wrong. We’re talking about a majority decision made by a national constituency of 130 million voters. The constituency of most states is roughly several million. But the constituency of the congress is 535. The constituency of the Supreme Court is nine. If you agree that democracy works then you agree that the larger the constituency the better the decision you’ll get on any issue. So it’s that simple.

The representatives who understand the National Initiative don’t support it because they know it takes away some of their power. It’s the same with the media. They know it takes away some of their power too, because the media is the intermediary between the representative and the citizen. And since we don’t have a lot of money to go out and advertise it we have a tough battle. Especially since this would require the majority of the people who voted in the last presidential election to support what we’re doing.

But let’s keep in mind the definition of freedom by Cicero, which is, freedom is the participation in power. If you don’t participate in power you’re not free. Well, power is the exercise of lawmaking. We don’t make the laws, the our elected representatives make the laws, so all we can do is obey them or go to jail.

ST: Your campaign was noted for its well-managed Internet strategy. You were very smart in your use of YouTube videos, for example, to gain support and get your message out. Who managed this part of your campaign and came up with the ideas for the videos?

MG: I’m glad you said we were very smart. We weren’t very smart. We just deferred to the younger voters who identified with what I was saying, and they took over. The person who was doing most of that work within our conversation was Skyler McKinley. At the time he was 15 or 16 years old. The "Rock" video was done by a couple of guys, both 24 years old. They did it. We didn’t initiate any of this. But we were lucky to get all that support. We didn’t have the financial resources to wage a traditional presidential campaign. I started running for president with $3000 and ended up in debt. I’m still fighting to receive my matching campaign funds. I’m the only presidential candidate to not receive matching campaign funds. And believe it or not I’ve just been sanctioned by the FEC for $10,000 for not reporting my filings on time. Can you believe that? They were on leave from business until late August and one of the first things they do when they get back is sanction me.

ST: Was the Alternative Debate your idea? [When Gravel was barred in November, 2007 from participating in any further Democratic debates for lack of proper fundraising, he held his own "Alternative Debate"]

MG: Oh, yeah. That was my idea. Sure. But here too, it only came about because we had a young 23-year-old supporter and I told him about my idea and I said could we TiVo this and he said, "Yeah sure, and it wouldn’t cost hardly anything either," so we did and he did all the tech work. But I’ll tell you, we made a big mistake because we rented this big hall to TiVo it in and have an audience, and it was wrong. We didn’t need a hall or an audience. Hell, we could have TiVoed this in my living room and filmed it and put it on the website. Instead we spent $10-15,000 and wiped out our savings. We didn’t need to do that.

ST: I think your most popular YouTube videos is you trying to win over Obama Girl. How did that come about?

MG: That’s right. The Obama Girl video was set up by the Obama Girl producer, who is making a lot of money. They approached us, and my criteria for anything we put up on YouTube was very simple: It had to be either dignified, humorous, or deal with an issue.

ST: Do you still talk to her?

MG: [Laughs] No. No, I don’t. You know, she didn’t even vote in the primary election.

ST: Oh, really? Is that true?

MG: Yeah. Her name is Amber. She was very sweet but as far as any kind of political acumen I didn’t detect any. Nice sweet kid though.

ST: What do you make of Sarah Palin?

MG: Look, she is clearly a very sharp politician. She can market herself very well. But from an ideological point of view she is really a Neanderthal: her religious views are terrible, her political ideology is terrible, and her experience is really nonexistent. She was mayor of Wasilla. I know Wasilla, I’ve campaigned there door-to-door, and that’s a very narrow—narrow religiously, narrow politically—community, probably one of the two most conservative communities in the state. She’s not well read, she’s not well informed, and she doesn’t know a lot about energy. Just being governor of Alaska doesn’t make you know a lot about energy.

She has demonstrated one thing: she is very tough and has a good political mind. She knows the direction she wants to go in to satisfy her ambitions and there’s nothing wrong with that in itself, however what is wrong is that she’s totally imbued with the militarism which has existed in this country for the past 50 years—all the more so in Alaska, because it’s such a military culture.

ST: I was really struck by the difference between the Sarah Palin from the Katie Couric interviews and the Sarah Palin at vice presidential debate.

MG: Oh sure. Like I said, she’s a natural. But that has to be informed by intellect and she’s not informed by any intellect. She doesn’t read anything. I think she’s really being controlled by the narrow-minded people around McCain—that is, the Neocons. It’s unfortunate.

ST: Have you seen that Larry Flynt is putting out a Sarah Palin look-a-like sex-tape? Think you’ll check it out?

MG: [Laughs] I haven’t seen but I’d like to. Is it out? I haven’t had the time. If you send me a link to it, I’ll watch it. You know, I’ve met Larry Flynt.

ST: Have you?

MG: Oh, yeah. Sure. He’s great, but you know he’s a little over the hill at this point. But send me a link to that video if you can. I’d like to see it. A little porn never hurt anyone.

ST: [Laughs] Sure. And I won’t tell your wife.

MG: That’s okay, I’ll probably show it to her. It’s not her kind of stuff but she’ll probably watch it once.

ST: Fair enough. I also wanted to ask, what do you make of Joe Biden?

MG: Well, Joe I know very well. He’s a nice guy, but he’s not a heavyweight. When it comes to foreign policy he’s all wrong. He follows the typical imperialist attitude that Americans are the greatest and that America should be leading the world. Well, we’re not the greatest and we shouldn’t be leading the world. The world should lead itself. We need to reform the United Nations, let them lead the world. We’re not qualified to be the world’s policemen: we’re disliked around the world today by pretty much everyone because we only do good things for the world when it serves our own selfish interest.

ST: Do you have any hope that Obama will significantly alter American foreign policy?

MG: No. He’ll reconstitute it in a more acceptable form. And that’s really the danger. During the campaign sometimes I’d give this comparison: it’s like trying to boil a frog. With the Republicans, you throw it in the boiling water and it hops out so you’ve got to put it back in and hold the lid. With the Democrats, you have to put the frog in tepid water and turn up the heat and cook it slowly.

ST: So you don’t think Obama will end the war?

MG: Oh sure, he’ll end the war, but he’ll keep the bases there, he’ll keep an American military presence there. We have military presence in over 130 countries. We have over, what, more than 700 military bases around the world. It’s ridiculous. We don’t need that. We spend more on defense than all the other countries in the world combined. Russia is 10 percent of our military budget; China is less than 10 percent. They’re not a threat to us. There’s no one on earth who’s ever going to think of attacking us. Sure, Al Qaeda, a bunch of guys in caves with box cutters. So we spend a fortune on Homeland Security for no real reason. It’s just to train people to act like 1984, so we have a total invasion of government into our daily lives.

ST: What are the biggest challenges that the next president will have to deal with?

MG: The biggest challenges are threefold: one is going to be dealing with the economic meltdown, which I don’t think they’re going to be able to do. You can’t use the same people that caused it to deal with it. So it’ll continue with band-aids until it really brings the whole crushing defeat of capitalism. Even before the meltdown we were in a catastrophic economic situation where all the things that they were promising could not be met and they still promise tax cuts and all the rest of it. It’s unbelievable.

Second has to do with the decline of American economic and political hegemony: how are we going to handle that psychologically as a populus? When you’re going downhill it begins to affect your ego. The American people think they’re the greatest people in the world; well they’re not. How are they going to handle our decline with Obama as our president? We’re going to admire ourselves because it’s all about identity politics. So Hillary [Clinton] has proven that a woman can rise. Obama has proven that—not a black person but a biracial person can rise—but so what? It’s the success of an individual and tells us something about the maturity of the American people, but what about the maturity of the policies that affect the American people? We’ve proven nothing on that score.

Third, is the cleaning up the environment and the ability to redirect the economy of the nation to that end. If we buy into American imperialism we can’t redirect the economy to solve our domestic needs, which are education, health care, building infrastructure, and cleaning up the environment. What we should be doing is turning around and building five million windmills and solar power plants in a five-year crash program. That will create an unbelievable amount of jobs. We don’t have to worry about bailing out the banks. Screw the banks. Just set up a process where people can finance building windmills and solar power plants across this country and let the ordinary citizen hold these windmills, not the wealthy people. It could be done. It’s a simple process of letting the profits of capital pay for the cost of capital and then the end product is letting the people be the owners of capital. The way it is right now with our system it’s the wealthy owning the capital and the people have nothing but wages. When the crunch comes, they’re left unemployed.

ST: During one of the early debates, the question was asked: If elected, what would be your priorities during your first 100 days in office. They didn’t really let you or some of the other candidates answer. So what would your priorities be?

MG: The first thing I would do is sign an executive order to end torture. Obama has to do that. It’s really the bellwether as to whether or not we’re going to turn the moral corner. We’ve got to signal to the world that we’re going to change morally. Now maybe Obama will do that but I don’t know that he will. But if I were president, then in my first 100 days I would not only sign that executive order but I would blow up the prison at Guantanamo, I would give Guantanamo back to Cuba, I would recognize Cuba, I would recognize Iran. I would blow up Abu Ghraib and I would withdraw our troops from Iraq. Then I would start to withdraw our troops from other countries around the world and I would pull out of NATO. That’s just for starters.

ST: You gave a lecture in France recently?

MG: Yeah, I spoke at the university in Grenoble. This is a university of 50,000 students—probably the largest university in France. It’s unbelievably beautiful. It was advertised that day that I’d be speaking in English so I assumed that I’d be speaking to 50-100 students. I walked into the room, this huge auditorium, and it was completely full of people—standing room early. They were sitting in the stairwell, the aisles, standing in the hallway, sitting in front of me on the floor. It was unbelievable. I was so taken aback when I walked into the auditorium that I threw my hands in the air and they started cheering. I spoke about American imperialism, about NATO, the National Initiative, how we’ve got to empower the people because representative government is broken. And it sold like hot cakes.

ST: What are you working on now?

MG: I’m trying to organize a TV program called Global Perspectives. There’s no American network to do it but I’ve got to find investors. It would be cutting edge political analysis. It wouldn’t be a news program but analysis of issues like the war, nuclear proliferation, and so on. It would be very international in scope and very controversial and so therefore I think very interesting.