Remembering Former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel

Former US Senator from Alaska Mike Gravel died on Saturday, June 26, 2021 at his home in California. (Photo courtesy of Lynne Mosier)

Throughout his 12 years as U.S. Senator from Alaska, Mike Gravel relished controversy, but passed away quietly at his home in Seaside, Calif. On Saturday at the age of 91, surrounded by his family.

Gravel, which served from 1969 to 1981 has been described as chimerical, eccentric and charismatic.

Gravel briefly made national headlines when he announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States in 2019. He said he entered the race after a few teenagers asked him to run. But, this was not his first offer for the office.

During his presidential campaign in 2006, one of his advertisements titled “Rocky” has gone viral on social media. It featured a stern-faced Gravel, who stood by a pond and silently stared at the camera for about a minute, picked up a rock, lifted it into the water and then walked away without even a word.

“It was a metaphor for human life,” Gravel said in an interview in 2017. “You decide what you want to do with a living, and then you do it. This causes ripples. You go on until your demise and the ripples continue to take their toll on society. “

So what ripples has Gravel’s political career set off?

When he ran for the US Senate in 1968, he forever changed the way campaigns were run in Alaska.

Weeks before the Democratic primary, he released a black-and-white cinematic biography titled “Man for Alaska” – a strategic sling that knocked out a political Goliath, Senator Ernest Gruening, who had also been Territorial Governor of Alaska.

Gravel, who had classic “tall, dark, and beautiful” Hollywood magnetism, was filmed traveling the state surrounded by Alaskan natives.

During the final weeks of the main race, the film aired several times on Alaskan TV stations – hand-picked by campaign agents, who traveled to isolated communities across the State. In most cases, the whole village turned out to be watching.

“People really enjoyed the movie,” said Irene Rowan, one of the campaign staff who traveled to the state. “You have to remember that back in the day there were no television or radio stations in rural Alaska and no movie theaters in the villages.

Rowan said she was part of a women’s team, led by Gravel’s first wife, who went door-to-door at every stop.

Before Gravel, statewide campaigns focused almost exclusively on Alaskan towns. Gravel was the first to woo the state’s rural vote so widely, and the film became a turning point in his campaign. A few days after its release, Gravel, who was lagging behind in the polls, catapulted into the lead.

It would be the first time Gravel had challenged conventional wisdom.

“I was really a maverick,” he later said of himself. “In my case, it was natural. I really had nothing to do but be myself.

Gravel said he did things differently: “I didn’t kneel down in front of authority. I questioned authority.

Perhaps the best example of this personality trait: his efforts to put the Pentagon Papers on file for Congress June 29, 1971. Gravel died within days of the 50th anniversary of his midnight dramatic read from top secret documents, which revealed that the US government had systematically lied to the American people about the Vietnam War.

(Photo courtesy of the US Senate)
(Photo courtesy of the US Senate)

After Gravel was shut down for attempting to read the documents in the Senate, it used a subcommittee he chaired to make the report public. He intended to read the 4,000 pages of the report. The grainy film of the audience shows an overworked Gravel, who wiped his forehead with a handkerchief and at times choked on tears. Although he only managed to read a small part of the report, he saved the entire document in the file, which made it available to the public and the media.

Gravel said he received the Pentagon Papers from a Washington Post reporter, but there is no mention of him in “The Post,” a recent film about the newspaper’s efforts to bring them to light.

At the time, Gravel’s actions bolstered his reputation as a star among his colleagues. He had also been ridiculed for some of his big ideas – such as a project to build a domed city near Denali, which Gravel claimed the media distorted. He said his idea was inspired by large tents to shelter crowds at the Winter Olympics, a concept he said was very doable.

“We could cover hundreds of acres at the foot of Mt. McKinley, ”said Gravel,“ by stretching out a big, big tent. “

“We could control the climate so that we can truly enjoy a winter wonderland,” he said.

Gravel also proposed a train system in Denali, which used mag-lev, or magnetic levitation technology.

While most of Gravel’s great ideas were scrapped, one hit the nail on the head.

Tim Bradner, a longtime Alaska natural resources writer, says it was Gravel who found a way to save the Trans-Alaska Pipeline from the environmental lawsuits that blocked its construction. He pushed Congress to pass legislation declaring the pipeline NEPA-compliant, the National Environmental Policy Act.

“No one had ever thought of doing something like this before. It’s so out of the box. People thought, here’s another Gravel shoot-from-the-hip thing, pie in the sky, ”Bradner said.

But he said Gravel, who usually seeks political spotlight, has been running a stealth campaign to sell his idea to senators. He effectively used lawyers and energy experts to make his point.

It was no surprise that Republican Senator Ted Stevens fought the measure. He and Gravel often disagreed, but Stevens then voted for the legislation.

“Once there were 40 votes behind this strategy, the White House backed it,” Bradner said. “It was a pretty dramatic event when it happened. History tells us it was a 50-50 vote in the US Senate. Vice President Spiro Agnew at the request of the White House cast the casting vote.

It’s what Bradner calls a “classic Gravelian moment,” which ultimately faded into history as Gravel lost his candidacy for a third term in the Senate and left the state to launch other national policy initiatives.

Gravel supporters say he never got credit for legislation that helped build the state, like his fight for the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, as well as his efforts to secure funding for the Alaska Sea Route and other infrastructure projects such as early satellite communications. .

Gravel’s family say he spent his last years working on what he called a “citizen amendment to the Constitution,” which he said was necessary to give the American people more direct legislative power.

Even as a state legislator, Gravel has strived to engage legislators more with their constituents, especially in rural communities.

He served in State House from 1963 to 1966 and, during that short period, became Speaker of the House.

Bradner, who has followed Gravel’s career closely, believes he may have been the first president to conduct field hearings in rural Alaska.

“It was the first time that many urban lawmakers visited a rural village,” Bradner said. “This had the effect of energizing rural political consciousness. “

Gravel’s last visit to Alaska was in 2017, when he was invited to speak on the pipeline’s 40th anniversary.

Gravel said he hoped his role in the pipeline would be remembered, but also as “someone who tried to stir the pot, so that people would question authority.”

“And if I have any advice for young people, it’s to question authority because that might not be the right thing,” said Gravel. “Follow your happiness, if you want to be happy.”

About Victoria Rothstein

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