Q&A with Mike Gravel

When Mike Gravel appeared on camera during the early Democratic primary debates, Americans began asking who this blunt-speaking, wisecracking individual was and what qualified him to stand beside Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and other, younger hopefuls. He soon reminded the nation that as a two-term Alaska senator (1969-1981), he released the Pentagon Papers—the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War. His was the era of dirty Nixon politics, global instability and OPEC oil shocks. A maverick to Democrats and Republicans, Gravel has been promoting his idea of a National Initiative for Democracy, which would grant the general population the right to make laws directly, for decades. Written with journalist Joe Lauria, “A Political Odyssey” is the kind of autobiography only Gravel could put forward, full of anecdotes, score settling and direct honesty.

During the Democratic primary debates, you railed against the lack of truth-telling in politics. Do you always feel you’re pushing a boulder up a hill?

It’s like pushing up a boulder with my nose. For some reason—whether it’s because I’m naturally pugnacious or just glandular—whenever I hear people say “you’re so courageous,” I think, am I really? I don’t feel courageous. What’s wrong with our country is self-evident. When I was in the Senate and ambitious like anyone else, I’d sell out a portion of myself to get elected. Yet in other quarters I was considered against conventional wisdom and totally irresponsible. The hardest part is peer pressure. You want to be liked—you don’t want to walk into a room and feel you’ve got leprosy or something’s wrong with you mentally. It’s never the difficulty of fighting for something, but you need people whose intelligence you respect to hear you, and when you’d talk you could tell they had no respect for your intellect—people who, through their silence, looked down on you.

People who weren’t born when you were a senator were shocked by your performance in the debates, too.

Well, as a young person I was dyslexic—I still am. Since I can’t read publicly very well, I became an expert at extemporaneous speaking. Generally in the Senate I’d write an outline, think it out, then speak and not even consult my notes.

You campaign featured YouTube ads that made you kind of a rock star.

The star that I became on the Internet wasn’t my work—it’s what young people did with the rock-in-the-water ad. They got a hold of my southern campaign manager and asked if they could have some time with me throwing a rock in the water. I understood immediately the significance of that image. Only after the reaction of the media did I understand the ad’s impact—it’s a metaphor for life—you throw a stone and hope you cause some ripples.

But why are certain states more reliably liberal or conservative, red or blue?

Democracy is accidental—it’s a convergence of individuals at certain points in history with events that alter people’s perceptions. One example is the accident of Abraham Lincoln at a time when it was inevitable we’d have a civil war. As a history buff, I love comparing Washington and Napoleon. They were comrades historically, but one went crazy with power while one didn’t. When Napoleon was exiled to Elba, he supposedly said, “I should have been more like Washington.” Believe me, it’s about power. It’s worse than coke or morphine.

If you hadn’t been defeated for reelection in 1980, would you have kept running—were you also addicted to the power?

I was so disgusted with government by then, I really wanted to get out. I’d been a womanizer and my marriage was in the toilet. My last term in office I was very unhappy. All my accomplishments were in the first four years—after that I suffered like an outlaw from both parties and the media. When I released and sought publication of the Pentagon Papers, I embarrassed the media. They didn’t like that.

You’re saying the media is corrupt?

It’s less corrupt—it’s corrupt at the highest level and more nuanced in the middle. A guy like Bill O’Reilly, he becomes very famous and loved within Fox News and I’m sure Rupert Murdoch goes to bed every night muttering his words. Murdoch doesn’t have to talk to him—[O’Reilly] knows what he has to do to be Murdoch’s hero and to get paid big bucks.

Do you think the Bill O’Reillys and Sean Hannitys of the media believe what they say on the air?

Look, there’s a little radar inside our heads that focuses on our enlightened self-interest and then everything points in that direction, even our spirituality. Do they believe what they say? You bet they do.

Do you think President Bush believes everything he says?

Bush isn’t intelligent enough to believe what he believes.

But you have to be moderately intelligent to run for the presidency and win, don’t you?

I don’t particularly buy that. You’ve got to be shrewd, compliant, lots of things. Sheer intelligence can be an impediment to being elected president.

Can you discuss the National Initiative? You’re famous for it and you discuss it in your book.

I believe that empowering Americans to make our laws is the solution to the shortcomings of representative government. That’s why I’ve dedicated more than half my life to this idea, which you can read about at www.nationalinitiative.us.