Former 2008 Democratic
presidential candidate Mike Gravel will be in Denver this week seeking
the Libertarian Party nomination for president. On the day of the Iowa
caucus in early January, I found myself in New Hampshire following the
irascible former Alaska senator around.
By the time I met up with the
long-shot presidential hopeful, his 15 minutes of fame had come and
gone and he had faded from the public scene, having been excluded from
the Democratic primary debates. While the political world was focused
on Des Moines, he started his day speaking at a Rotary Club in the
To my surprise, the room was full
with over 100 people. Before the event began, I introduced myself to
Gravel's two 20-something-year-old staffers. They were excited to see a
member of the press in attendance and they immediately invited me to
join them at other campaign events throughout the day with the one
other journalist who was there.
By reading interviews Gravel has
given and watching him on television, it is easy to get the impression
that he is bombastic, loose-lipped, and often angry. His speech to the
Rotary Club didn't do much to diminish this image.
He condemned corporate control of
the media and of American society itself. Gravel gave the appearance
that he really hates money, likely because he has so little of it.
"So what has the media fed you?"
Gravel asked the crowd. "Those who have the most money are most likely
to become president. Well, that is code for those who are the most
corrupt are the ones most likely to become president of the United
Mainly, Gravel trumpeted his
National Initiative for Democracy, which is essentially a proposal for
more direct democracy since he believes our current system is broken.
But since few people have been won over by this idea, Gravel believes
the problem lies with the media, not with the message or the messenger.
This is a common excuse offered by candidates who fail to register
support. Just look at Alan Keyes on the Republican side.
Another major theme of the Gravel campaign seems to be that America is no better than any other country in the world.
"We say we are number one? We are
not number one in the world in any indices that count . . . We are
number one in delusion," Gravel preached to the Rotary Club. He would
later tell a group of students to "Bow your heads down we are so bad."
As soon as the speech ended, I
hurried out of the Rotary Club to follow Gravel to his next event at a
local high school. I told his staffer that I would follow their car,
but if he lost me I had a GPS system in my rental car to get me there.
This soon became relevant.
As I followed Gravel's Toyota
Camry, it became clear that the senator and his staff were completely
lost. It was only a matter of time before I and my GPS were asked to
lead the way. Gravel may think Americans are dumb and the country in
need of redemption, but thanks to American technological innovation he
got to his event.
I soon regretted my decision to
lead the senator to the high-school, however. In a classroom full of
about three dozen students, Professor Gravel gave a Howard Zinn-like
American history lesson.
As such rants so often go, Gravel
turned to the topic of the "military-industrial complex." After noting
how much more the United States spends on defense than every other
country in the world, Gravel asked almost insanely, "Does anybody know
who our enemy is? I don't know of any enemy. Do you know anyone in the
world who would dare attack us?"
With comic timing, one alert student promptly blurted out "Al Qaeda."
In an interview late in the day,
Gravel came across as friendly and likeable, even if much of what he
advocated was abhorrent and silly. He called President Bush "idiotic"
as well as "an alcoholic" and a "religious nut." Though supportive of
more direct participation in political decision making from the masses,
he took a more elitist stand that there should be some limitation on
who can run for president. He couldn't really specify what credentials
one must have under the Gravel standard, but it was clear that he
thinks he would pass the test. After all, he said, without such a
standard, "you get 50 nutcases running."
Pressed on what he likes about
America, Gravel threw out some pleasantries about the great resources
the country possesses before adding that Americans "are a violent
people. We've been made violent by slavery and the way we've acquired
our land, taking it from the indigenous people."
At 77 years old and with less of a
chance of becoming president than Gary Coleman had of becoming
California governor, one must wonder, as I still do, why Gravel is
doing this. Is it an act of ego? A way to get publicity for his
recently released book? A late-life crisis? Or does he actually believe
he is making a difference? My guess is a combination of all of the
Gravel no doubt hopes that he will
find his golden ticket in this weekend in Denver. Given Gravel's tone,
demeanor and many of his policy stances (such as his support for
universal health care), however, it is hard to see how he could emerge
from the Mile High City triumphant.