The maverick

The late Sen. Mike Gravel in his prime/Wikimedia Commons


One of my old bosses, former Sen. Mike Gravel, died Saturday in California at the age of 91. Alaska was a good place for Gravel in the 1960s and 1970s.

California was clearly better for him in the end.

In the 1960s and 1970s and on for a time into the ’80s, Alaskans dreamed big in a state that had little going for it. California, as messed up as it is today, is a place where people still dream big.

It was a good place for a guy who once had a vision for a domed city on state lands on the southern edge of Denali National Park and Preserve.

Think of it as a year-round “visitor center” on steroids if you will, an Alaska version of what they call Disneyland in the boom-town state that would rank as the world’s fifth-biggest economy if it managed to secede from the union.

There are probably a few people who would today like to see California secede, but that’s another story. This one is about Gravel, a man who moved on from Alaska with his adventures done here.


His domed city does, however, put him in the same discussion with some other, iconic Alaska dreamers:

All these ideas came to be called boondoggles.

The Alaska Report, a now-defunct website, cataloged some of them in a 2007 story about “some rather excessive megaproject proposals that are now safely stuffed into the dustbin of Alaska history.”

By then Alaskans had gone from dreaming big to hardly dreaming at all. Democrat Tony Knowles, Hickel’s successor in 1994, might have proposed the last big dream with his talk of turning Hickel’s Cordova Highway into a “world-class” trail for hikers and bikers running for 80 miles along the western edge of the world’s largest, government-protected wilderness area – the Kluane / Wrangell-St. Elias / Glacier Bay / Tatshenshini-Alsek World Heritage Site.

Knowles’ idea was doomed from the start.

Alaska in the mid-90s was already settling happily into the belief the state could live comfortably off the riches of the North Slope oil patch and didn’t really need much of an economy other than commercial fishing – which had been around forever and spawned a romantic, cowboy mystique – and the limited tourism that fit well with Alaskan’s serious love-hate relationship with visitors.

Many Alaskans love the economic boost, but are none too happy sharing the state in summer. It would so much nicer if other Americans would stay home and just send money.

Land of opportunity

California has a different view. The theme park Disneyland on its own brings about 18 million visitors per year to the state. That’s more than six times the record number of tourists who come to see the entirety of the 49th state each year. 

But then Alaska long ago stopped aggressively promoting tourism. The Alaska Division of Tourism, once a big operation with offices active in Japan and Germany, turned most of its responsibilities over to the tourism industry at the start of the new millennium.

“Shifting political philosophy and state budget shortfalls have decreased state government funding of tourism marketing,” the agency observed at the time.

Gravel, an Alaska real estate developer before he became a politician, was by then long gone from the Alaska political scene, having committed political suicide in 1978 by voting for the sale of U.S.-built  F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia despite his staff telling him the vote was crazy.

It was crazy.

“I supported the idea that in the long run it would be better for Israel’s security,” Gravel later wrote by way of explanation. “But Barney saw it as a betrayal.”

Barney was the late Barney Gottstein, one of the founders of the Carr-Gottstein supermarket empire in Alaska, one of the state’s most successful businessmen, a one-time chairman of the Democratic Party of Alaska, and Gravel’s biggest campaign contributor.

When Gravel turned his back on Barney, Gravel was doomed. He didn’t even make it through the Democratic primary in 1980, losing there to Anchorage attorney Clark Gruening, the grandson of Ernest.

Clark subsequently lost the general election to banker Frank Murkowski, whose daughter Lisa now occupies that seat. Gravels’ staff told him he was inviting this sort of defeat with his throwaway vote for those jets.

The Senate vote to block the sale fell 11 votes short of a majority. Gravel’s vote against the sale was meaningless, and everyone in the Capitol knew what the vote count was going to be before the voters were cast.

Gravel slit his own political throat anyway. This was classic Gravel – principal over practicality.

Pentagon Papers

He first became famous for reading the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record 11 days after The Washington Post began publishing excerpts. Gravel believed it was in the public interest to get the anti-war papers out there in their entirety.

Most of his Senate colleagues thought he was wasting a lot of everyone’s time droning on with the reading of them. But Gravel did like the attention the act attracted.

And there is no doubt the need for attention sometimes drove his behavior. He was for years at war with the late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, over plans to create a protected, fisheries conservation zone 200 miles off the nation’s coast.

The debate between the two, who never got along, wasn’t about conservation. They agreed on the goal of removing foreign fishing fleets from waters adjacent to Alaska and the other U.S. states.

But Gravel thought that best done through a Law of the Sea Treaty covering the harvest of migratory fish, like salmon, ocean-wide as well as protecting nearshore fisheries. Stevens favored the much more practical position of pushing foreign fishing fleets far off Alaska’s coast.

The more Stevens insisted a 200-mile limit was the practical solution; the more Gravel dug in on a need for a Law of the Sea treaty.

Working with Sen. Warren Magnuson, D-Wash., Stevens helped push the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act (later to be renamed the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act) through the Congress in 1977. 

Gravel didn’t live long enough to see the U.S. agree to an international Law of the Sea treaty.  The United Nations finally brought one into force in 1994, but the U.S. has yet to ratify it. 

Gravel’s fans thought positions like this made him a principled idealist. Others found him a grandstanding goofball. He was a little of both.

Some of my fondest memories of my year as the assistant press secretary in his Washington, D.C. office involved listening to one of his aides bemoan Gravel’s behavior before Senate committees considering how to limit the spread of nuclear weapons.

A staunch opponent of nuclear proliferation, Gravel often testified before committees on this subject. He was then way ahead of his time on the issue of the threat posed by global terrorists.

He was in the ’70s warning the Senate of the threat terrorists might get their hands on a nuclear weapon and use it against an American city.

But in making the pitch to strengthen international controls on nukes, he invariably got carried away with multi-bomb scenarios in which terrorists would blow up one U.S. city and use the threat of using more bombs to blow up other cities in an effort to pry concessions out of the U.S. government.

Usually, he ended up sounding like some alarmist whack job, and alarmist whack jobs are seldom taken seriously. It was the sort of behavior that sometimes had members of his staff pulling their hair out.

Gravel’s imagination and creativity – his biggest legislative success might have been in brokering a unique agreement that helped pave the way for construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline – was both his greatest strength and his biggest weakness.


“Rock 2.0” – a campaign video for his failed, 2020 bid to become the Democrat candidate for president – about says it all both good and bad with its echoes of the late President Dwight D. Eisenhower warning against the military-industrial complex, former presidential candidate and later President George W. Bush cautioning against “nation building” in foreign lands, and a pitch  for the Green New Deal. 

The video ends with Gravel throwing a rock in a muddy creek. Gravel explained the rock, which he’d used in an earlier, 2008 campaign ad, this way:

“It’s a metaphor for life. What you do is concentrate on what you want to do with your life – that’s the staring into the TV camera. And then after you’ve decided what you what to do, you go do it – and that’s taking the rock and throwing it in the water. It creates ripples.

“You actually create ripples in society, and after that you march off to your demise. So that’s the metaphor for human life.”

He obviously missed the more obvious symbolism:

When you’re political views are as diverse and complicated as those of Mike Gravel, you’re destined to sink like a rock in the polarized, two-party political system of the U.S.

Jamie Weinstein covered the 2008 Democrat presidential primary for The American Spectator, an old conservative magazine, and wrote a story headlined “Thank Heaven for Little Gravels,” noting their political entertainment value:

“…The top-tier candidates are never the real story. Or, more accurately, they are rarely the most interesting story.

“The feisty former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, who disappeared from public view for just under three decades before deciding he should run for president, stole the show again, standing nearly alone on stage advocating lowering the drinking age to 18. His passion in answering this not-so-important question proves that there is no issue that Mike Gravel can’t get fired up about. This we found out is not limited to political issues. He also passionately defended his two bankruptcies by comparing himself to Donald Trump and proudly touted how he stuck credit card companies for thousands of dollars. One just can’t help but imagine what a Mike Gravel presidency would bring.”

My bet would have been on a friendlier but equally wild presidency as the one Trump brought. Gravel envisioned plenty of swamps that needed draining in the nation’s capital, albeit different swamps than those Trump wanted to drain.

Gravel’s desire to end the War on Drugs, use anti-trust laws to break up major corporations, and shut down 800 U.S. military bases in foreign lands – along with his long-running opposition to government secrecy and more – would have threatened the survival of deeply entrenched bureaucracies.

And as Trump discovered, when you threaten the survival of the ‘crats, they will start big political fires. Gravel got close enough to that get singed. It marked him as a political troublemaker and kept him out of politics for a long time.

When he came back as a septuagenarian, it was to throw rocks into the political waters to try to generate those social waves before, as he put it, “you march off to your demise.”














Categories: Commentary

Tagged as:

Leave a Reply