SEASIDE (California) — Mike Gravel, a former Alaska senator who read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record and questioned Barack Obama about nuclear weapons during his subsequent presidential campaign, has died. He was 91 years old when he died.
Gravel died Saturday, according to his daughter, Lynne Mosier, who served in the Senate as a Democrat representing Alaska from 1969 to 1981. Gravel had been residing in Seaside, California, and was in poor condition, according to longtime assistant Theodore W. Johnson.
Gravel’s two tenure coincided with difficult times in Alaska, including the approval of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and congressional debates over how to resolve Alaska Native land claims and whether to declare vast swaths of federal property as parks, preserves, and monuments.
He found himself in the difficult situation of being an Alaska Democrat at a time when some locals were burning President Jimmy Carter in effigy for his efforts to safeguard huge swaths of public land from development.
On the land issue, Gravel had a quarrel with Alaska’s other senator, Republican Ted Stevens, choosing to resist Carter’s actions and rejecting Stevens’ call for a settlement.
Finally, in 1980, Congress approved the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which set aside millions of acres for national parks, wildlife refuges, and other protected areas as a compromise. Carter signed it as one of his final acts before leaving office.
Gravel’s anti-war activism was also prominent during his time in the Senate. In 1971, he conducted a one-man filibuster to protest the Vietnam-era draught, reading 4,100 pages of the 7,000-page leaked Pentagon Papers, the Defense Department’s account of the country’s early involvement in Vietnam, into the Congressional Record.
Gravel returned to national politics decades after leaving the Senate, running for president twice. Gravel, then 75, and his wife, Whitney, boarded a bus in 2006 to declare his candidacy for president as a Democrat in the 2008 election, which was ultimately won by Obama.
He ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 as an opponent of the Iraq war.
“Every day our soldiers continue in Iraq, I feel America is doing injury to ourselves and to the chances for international peace,” Gravel stated in 2006. He based his campaign on a movement to put all policy choices, including health-care reform and war declarations, to a direct vote of the people.
Gravel’s heated statements during Democratic forums drew a lot of attention.
Gravel addressed then-Senator Obama in a 2007 debate about the potential of deploying nuclear weapons against Iran. “Tell me who you want to bomb, Barack?” Gravel remarked. “I’m not going to bomb anyone right now, Mike,” Obama answered.
After being banned from further Democratic debates, Gravel campaigned as a Libertarian candidate.
He claimed the Democratic Party “no longer represents my vision for our wonderful nation” in an email to supporters. “It is a party that continues to support the war, the military-industrial complex, and imperialism — all of which are diametrically opposed to my beliefs,” he added.
He did not receive the Libertarian Party’s nomination.
Gravel sought the Democratic presidential candidacy in 2020 for a short time. He slammed American wars once more and promised to cut military expenditure. His most recent campaign was remarkable in that both his campaign manager and chief of staff were under the age of 18 at the time of his brief run.
“There was never any intention for him to do anything other than participating in the debates,” says the author. He had no intention of running for office, but he wanted to bring his views in front of a bigger audience,” Johnson said.
Gravel was unable to participate in the debates due to his ineligibility. In the election that now-President Joe Biden won, he backed Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
In the mid-1960s, he served as a legislative lawmaker in Alaska, including as a House speaker.
In the 1968 Democratic primary, he defeated incumbent Sen. Ernest Gruening, a former territory governor, to win his first Senate term.
Gravel served two terms until being defeated in the 1980 Democratic primary by Clark Gruening, Gruening’s grandson, who lost to Republican Frank Murkowski.