You have to admire a man who can stay mad for almost four decades. No matter how dedicated and fired up most of us may be initially, we cop out, wear out or burn out long before that. Not former Democratic Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, again this year, long-long-shot presidential candidate. Mr. Gravel gets mad, usually for good reason, and then, eschewing the conventional wisdom, never gets over it. You gotta like the guy, and thanks to his able co-author, Joe Lauria, you gotta like his book.
What made Mr. Gravel mad back in 1971 was the arrogance of power, especially as wielded by democratically elected leaders to favor the defense industry over the common good. "The separate histories of my life and American militarism collided in 1968, when I arrived in the Senate at the age of thirty-eight," he writes. "My fight against militarism turned into a personal battle with Scoop Jackson, the senator who personified the military-industrial power even more than I personified its opposition."
In the Senate, Mr. Gravel was never a go-along-to-get-along kind of guy, displaying an independent streak right from the start. Eventually, he was a major thorn not just in the side of other senators, but also in that of the president of the United States, Richard Nixon, whom he infuriated by reading into the public record 4,100 of the 7,100 pages of the Pentagon Papers. By publishing the Pentagon Papers, Mr. Gravel cast a very large and ominous die that didn’t stop until the war in Vietnam came to its ignoble end.
"A Political Odyssey" lays out Mr. Gravel’s thesis that, far more often than not, our leaders have used fear – of the British, the Indians, the Communists, the radical Islamic terrorists – to justify ever larger outlays for defense, whether we happen to be at war or not. During his time on the national stage, however, Mr. Gravel’s main causes were the war in Vietnam and nuclear testing. But after fighting those battles throughout the 1970s, he was "swept out of office when Reagan and resurgent militarism were swept in. I sank into a long political and personal despair, only to start climbing out of it in the ’90s, seeking ways to reform the political system."
Mr. Gravel’s main reforms are direct democracy, the national initiative and the flat tax. Before you groan, stop and think what a transformation these ideas would produce in this country. (Better yet, read this book, because it is filled with information and insight.) As a prime example of the workability of the first of his ideas, Mr. Gravel cites Switzerland: "In 168 years of direct democracy, the Swiss have built the most peaceful and prosperous nation in Europe. The United States would become unrecognizable, if the people would have this same power."
There are several other good reasons to read this book. One is that it’s very well-written (Mr. Gravel’s collaborator, Mr. Lauria, is an experienced New York-based journalist whose specialty is foreign affairs). Another is that it’s refreshingly candid. He says that Republican Sen. William Saxbe of Ohio "really loathed me," Jimmy Carter was "more Stevenson than Eisenhower," Bill Clinton "was the first president since FDR who did not feel obliged to scare that hell out of people to pump up profits and power," and he describes the late Rev. Jerry Falwell as "the extreme-right political operative masquerading as a preacher."
It’s difficult to sustain anger, even righteous anger, for almost 100,000 words, and yet Mr. Gravel manages to do it without sounding shrill, probably because he doesn’t take himself anywhere near as seriously as he takes the issues.
By the end, the tone is, to my ear, just right, as when he tells us, "History is irrational. Powerful people think they can control it. They are fools. The lawlessness unleashed by the supposedly rational schemes of American, Pakistani, and Saudi intelligence beginning in the 1970s, in which terrorists and extremists were used for short-term political gain, resulted in September 11, 2001."
And don’t make the mistake of thinking Mr. Gravel is impressed by all the current talk about "change." This is how he ends "A Political Odyssey": "[Americans] cling to anyone who promises them change, however superficial. Under the current system that’s all they’ve got. They deserve more. They must participate in power to alter this nation’s march to disaster. That’s the only change we can believe in."
John Greenya is the author of "Silent Justice: The Clarence Thomas Story."