Vietnam

RIP Mike Gravel, Unapologetic Opponent of War and Star of Absurdist Presidential Campaign Ads

A heterodox hero and committed antiwar activist, Gravel put the Pentagon Papers in the public record.

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Contemporary political discourse is populated by elected officials falsely claiming to oppose censorship. Former Sen. Mike Gravel, who died Sunday at age 91, was the real deal.

As a member of the U.S. Senate representing Alaska, a post he held from 1969 through 1981, Gravel first made a name for himself by attempting (and ultimately failing) to filibuster a renewal of the military draft for what he saw as a "senseless war" in Vietnam.

It was that failed filibuster that caught the attention of Daniel Ellsberg, the former Pentagon analyst who had secretly made copies of more than 7,000 documents—now known as the "Pentagon Papers"—detailing just how right Gravel was about America's involvement in Vietnam.

By the time Gravel entered the story, some of the Pentagon Papers had already been leaked by Ellsberg to The New York Times and other newspapers. In response, the Justice Department brought lawsuits against newspapers that published excerpts of the papers, claiming that doing so was a threat to national security. But Ellsberg sought a loophole in the government's censorship scheme: The U.S. Constitution grants members of Congress immunity from prosecution for anything said during legislative sessions. All he needed to do was find a member of Congress willing to read some of the Pentagon's most embarrassing secrets into the official congressional record.

In a 2007 interview, Gravel recalled the high-stakes political thriller that played out in the days after Ellsberg, calling from a payphone, first contacted his office. An intermediary, Washington Post editor Ben Bagdikian, passed the papers to Gravel during a clandestine midnight meeting outside the Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C. Gravel smuggled the papers into his Senate office and, after being fitted with a colostomy bag, prepared to read the entirety on the Senate floor. Then, another complication: Not enough senators were present to constitute a quorum and allow the session to begin.

Gravel, a freshman senator at the time, had little authority in Congress' seniority-based structure. But he was chairman of the rather insignificant Building and Grounds subcommittee, which mostly just rubberstamped federal construction contracts. Unable to speak on the floor, Gravel commandeered a committee room, called an unscheduled hearing ostensibly to discuss how spending on the Vietnam War had impinged on the construction budgets for new federal buildings, and proceeded to read the entire Pentagon Papers into the official congressional record.

"It is my constitutional obligation to protect the security of the people by fostering the free flow of information absolutely essential to their democratic decision-making," Gravel said. A year later, the Supreme Court validated his procedural maneuvering. In Gravel v. United States, the court upheld Gravel's immunity from prosecution and extended a portion of that immunity to cover the legislative aides who helped him.

The Pentagon Papers were the defining moment of Gravel's political career, but not the last time that his unconventional political theatrics would make a splash. After being defeated in his senatorial re-election bid in 1980, Gravel never again held elected office despite quixotic runs at the presidency in 2008 and 2020—including a brief stint as a Libertarian Party candidate during the former effort. He was an unapologetic and principled opponent of war and the bipartisan consensus that has marched American troops into bloody, pointless conflicts in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

"There are Americans who say that by leaving Iraq, we would be saying that our soldiers died in vain," Gravel said during a 2006 speech. "But the only thing worse than soldiers dying in vain is more soldiers dying in vain."

During his brief flirtation with the Libertarian Party (L.P.) in 2008, Gravel told Reason that he'd "get a hell of a lot more than 3 percent" if the party had the guts to nominate him. The nomination instead went to former Georgia congressman Bob Barr, who won 0.4 percent of the popular vote that year.

Gravel also dismissed the nonsensical notion of third-party "spoiler" candidates. "I got to tell you, I want to deprive both" Barack Obama and John McCain of the presidency, Gravel told Dave Weigel.

Such was Gravel's ethos. He rightly rejected the blue/red dichotomy of national politics as a distraction that kept Americans from considering right and wrong, war and peace. During that same 2008 campaign, Gravel said the government's refusal to grant equal rights to same-sex couples was "immoral"—a position that Barack Obama and the rest of the mainstream Democratic Party would not embrace for several more years, and then only after many state officials took the lead.

In his final on-the-record interview with Reason, during his 2019 presidential campaign, Gravel bemoaned the lack of congressional action on marijuana legalization and state-by-state legalization efforts that often include taxes so high they effectively leave weed on the black market. "We treat all of these drugs as criminal problems. They're not. They're public health problems," Gravel told Reason's Billy Binion.

Gravel's willingness to stand well outside the political mainstream didn't always lead him to productive places. He endorsed 9/11 Trutherism during a radio interview in 2016—as part of an overall call for greater government transparency—and had connections to some anti-Semitic figures on the political fringe.

Anyone who came of political age during the 2000s likely remembers Gravel not for his Vietnam-era activism or left-libertarian politics, but for his avant garde campaign ads—which he, of course, denied were actually campaign ads.

In the most famous of those 2007 pieces, Gravel stared into the camera for a full two minutes before picking up a large rock, throwing it into a nearby body of water, and walking away. In another, he gathered sticks and then stared into a campfire for several minutes.

"The ads are both a commentary on the emptiness of our political discourse—a parody if you like—and a refutation of that emptiness, or a triumph over it, a reinsertion of brute content, a silent explosion of truth into a world of mere and moronic fiction," anarchist philosopher Crispin Sartwell mused in the Los Angeles Times in 2007. That's probably as good an interpretation as any.

Gravel's final campaign for the presidency was another exercise in political absurdism. He launched the effort with a promise to "bring a critique of American imperialism to the Democratic debate stage," though he never actually qualified for a debate. He actively discouraged people from voting for him and turned his social media accounts over to a trio of teenagers who used it as a platform for memes, zingers, and the occasional zen-like commentary on politics. (Unfortunately, his campaign account and all its tweets have been deleted.)

"I'm not planning to contest any primaries and, if offered the nomination, would decline it. (Anyone who actually thinks they could serve as president is probably crazy.)" read one memorable, now-deleted tweet.

It's a parenthetical that does a decent job of summing up the late Mike Gravel, who saw political power as the absurd pursuit that it is—and who understood the bloody consequences that power can produce when secrecy is valued over openness. The anti-war left is now a mere ripple of its splashier self. It could use a few more people willing to throw rocks at the political establishment.