Remembering former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel

Alaska's former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel died on Saturday, June 26, 2021, at his home in California. (Photo courtesy Lynne Mosier)
Alaska’s former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel died on Saturday, June 26, 2021, at his home in California. (Photo courtesy of Lynne Mosier)

Throughout his 12 years as Alaska’s U.S. Senator, Mike Gravel relished stirring controversy, but he died quietly at his home in Seaside, California, on Saturday at the age of 91, surrounded by family.

Gravel, who served from 1969 to 1981 has been described as quixotic, quirky and charismatic.

Gravel made a brief splash in the national headlines when he announced his bid for the U.S. presidency in 2019. He said he entered the race after a couple of teenagers asked him to run.  But, it wasn’t his first bid for the office.  

During his 2006 campaign for the presidency, one of his ads called “Rock” went viral on social media. It featured a stern-faced Gravel, who stood next to a pond and stared silently into the camera for about a minute, picked up a rock, hefted it into the water and then walked away without so much as a word.

“It was a metaphor for human life,” Gravel said in a 2017 interview. “You decide what you want to do in life, then you go ahead and do it. That causes ripples. You go ahead to your demise, and the ripples continue to have an effect on society.”

So, what ripples did Gravel’s political career set in motion?

During his 1968 bid for the U.S. Senate, he changed the way campaigns were run in Alaska forever.

Weeks before the Democratic primary, he rolled out a black-and-white film biography called “Man for Alaska” – a strategic slingshot that knocked out a political Goliath, Sen. Ernest Gruening, who had also served as Alaska’s territorial governor.

Gravel, who had a classic Hollywood “tall, dark, and handsome” magnetism, was filmed traveling across the state, surrounded by Alaska Natives.

In the final weeks of the primary race, the film aired repeatedly on Alaska TV stations — hand-carried by campaign workers, who flew to remote communities across the state. In most cases, the entire village turned out to watch.

“People really enjoyed the film,” said Irene Rowan, one of the campaign staffers who traveled the state. “You have to remember at the time there were no television or radio stations in rural Alaska or movie theaters in the villages.”

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

Prior to Gravel, statewide campaigns focused almost exclusively on Alaska’s cities. Gravel was the first to court the state’s rural vote so widely, and the film became a turning point in his campaign. Within days of its release, Gravel, who had lagged in the polls, catapulted into the lead.

It would be the first of many times Gravel would defy conventional wisdom.

“I was very much a maverick,” he would later say of himself. “In my case, it was natural. I really didn’t have to do anything but be myself.”

Gravel said he did things differently, “I did not genuflect to authority. I questioned authority.”

Perhaps the best example of that personality trait: His efforts to put the Pentagon Papers in the congressional record on June 29, 1971. Gravel died just days away from the 50th anniversary of his dramatic midnight reading from top-secret documents, which revealed the U.S. government had systematically lied to the American people about the Vietnam War.

(Photo courtesy U.S. Senate)
(Photo courtesy of U.S. Senate)

After Gravel was shut down for trying to read the Papers on the Senate floor, he used a subcommittee he chaired to make the report public. He intended to read all 4,000 pages of the report. Grainy film of the hearing shows an overwrought Gravel, who wiped his brow with a handkerchief and occasionally choked up in tears. Although he only managed to read a small portion of the report, he did enter the entire document into the record, 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 movie about the newspaper’s efforts to bring them to light.

At the time, Gravel’s actions reinforced his reputation as a showboat among his colleagues. He had also been ridiculed for some of his big ideas – such as a plan 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 base of Mt. McKinley,” Gravel said, “by stretching a large, large tent.”

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

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

While most of Gravel’s big ideas fell by the wayside, one of them did hit the mark.

Tim Bradner, a longtime Alaska natural resources writer, says it was Gravel who came up with a way to rescue the Trans-Alaska Pipeline from the environmental lawsuits that stalled its construction. He pushed for Congress to pass a law that declared the pipeline in compliance with NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Nobody ever thought of doing anything like this before. It’s so out of the box. People thought, here’s another Gravel shoot-from-the-hip, pie-in-the-sky thing,” Bradner said. 

But he said Gravel, who usually sought the political spotlight, ran a stealth campaign to sell his idea to senators. He made effective use of lawyers and energy experts to make his case.

It was not a surprise that Republican Sen. Ted Stevens fought the measure. He and Gravel were often at odds, but Stevens later voted for the legislation.

“Once there were 40 votes behind this strategy, the White House put its support behind it,” Bradner said. “It was quite a dramatic event when it happened. History tells us it was a 50-50 vote in the U.S. Senate. Vice President Spiro Agnew at the request of the White House cast the deciding vote.”

It was what Bradner calls a “classic Gravelian moment,” that eventually faded into history, because Gravel lost his bid for a third term in the Senate and left the state to launch other national political initiatives.

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

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

Even as a state legislator, Gravel worked to get lawmakers more engaged with their constituents, especially in rural communities.

He served in the State House from 1963 to 1966, and in that short period of time rose to become Speaker of the House.

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

“It was the first time that many urban legislators had been to a rural village,” Bradner said. “It had the effect of energizing rural political awareness.”

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

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

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

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