By Joe Livernois
Mike Gravel might be the most reluctant presidential candidate in U.S. history. The former senator from Alaska now lives in Seaside and he’s trying to finish his latest book. He’s no stranger to the presidential horse race, having been a Democratic candidate during the 2008 primary season. But he’s 88 years old and he’s made it very clear that he definitely does not want to be president. Not anymore.
But there is an organized grassroots movement, generated out of Westchester County, N.Y., to get Gravel invited to the Democratic Party primary debates. And this quirky campaign is picking up steam.
That effort is led by a group of teenagers that developed an admiration for the man who earned his stripes as a strident progressive senator from 1969 to 1981. Most famously, back in the day, Gravel tried to read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record after receiving the damning indictment on the Vietnam War from Ben Bagdikian of the Washington Post.
The young men from New York started researching his career, and decided that there is no better person to lead the country at the moment.
They contacted Gravel and urged him to run. “I’m sitting at home minding my own business, working on my latest book, and David Oks calls and asked me to run for president,” Gravel said during an interview earlier this week. “I said, ‘Do you have any idea how old I am?’ I’m going to be 89 in a couple of weeks. I tried to discourage them.” While still sharp, Gravel is hobbled by neuropathy and walks with the help of a cane.
Eventually, Oks convinced Gravel to let him and his friends create an exploratory committee. The sole purpose of the campaign is to get Gravel into the debates.
Oks, by the way, is 17 years old and is about to graduate high school before attending Oxford. He ran for mayor of Ardsley, N.Y., at the age of 16. The campaign committee is composed mostly of Oks’ pals. Henry Williams, the campaign’s chief of staff, is attending Columbia University.
“The senator has been right about just about everything,” said Oks, during a telephone interview earlier this week. Oks said he first came across Gravel’s name while reading “Nixonland,” a book by Rick Perlstein. Oks and his friends started obsessing over Gravel and they learned all they could about him. Gravel has long been a critic of the military industrial complex and the buildup of nuclear weaponry. He is a military veteran who is enmeshed in the peace movement. And those were qualities Oks said he was looking for in a candidate.
“The goal of the campaign is to move the (political) conversation to the left,” Oks said, and Gravel is about as left as they come.
The campaign team — minus Oks, who was sick — showed up in Monterey County several weeks ago to meet Gravel and to develop a platform for the candidate. They were accompanied by a couple of film crews, one of which shot a professional-looking three-and-a-half-minute video that is starting to gain viral status. The video is based partly on a commercial Gravel aired when he ran for president in 2008. Much of the new video was filmed at Lake El Estero in Monterey.
"I was ahead of my time, and it looks like time has caught up with me."
His committee learned that Gravel had once set up a Twitter account, but had never used it. Gravel gave them permission to run the social media program and they post tweets almost as regularly as the Commander in Chief. “These kids are really smart,” Gravel said. “Sometimes I have to ask them to tone things down. I don’t think there’s any profit in attacking the other candidates.”
But here’s the thing: Gravel might be a reluctant candidate, but a recent survey of almost 95,000 liberal voters conducted by Democracy for America showed that Gravel is the fifth most popular candidate among Democrats, checking in with 6.8 percent. He’s even ahead of Beto O’Rourke. Oks said that early polling in Ohio shows Gravel is among the leaders in what has become a crowded field of primary candidates. He said polling shows that Gravel is most popular among older adults who remember him from his days in the Senate and among young men and women who will be casting their first votes.
Oks said the campaign team is trying to raise money from at least 65,000 people. The amount of the contribution is not important, and the campaign recommends contributions of as little as $1. If they can draw 65,000 contributors, they believe they can pressure the Democratic Party to invite Gravel to the debates.
Gravel seems a bit overwhelmed by the sudden attention he’s receiving, at a time when he and his wife Whitney thought they’d be enjoying the fruits of retirement. But life has suddenly sped up for the couple. Oks was thrilled to share the news that actress Susan Sarandon tweeted on Monday that she has donated to Gravel’s campaign. The Atlantic magazine already published a feature about the campaign. So has Rolling Stone and the Guardian. Whitney is busy keeping track of the reporters who are calling the house. Oks said he’s been contacted by the New York Times Magazine.
Gravel 2020 video, shot at Lake El Estero
“It’s all very flattering, with a capital ‘F,’” Gravel said. He’s also encouraged that young men and women are acknowledging their political elders, and learning from their efforts. He is clearly enjoying some late-in-life popularity. Even without his recent re-emergence as a national figure, Gravel said he believes he was a trailblazer for today’s leading progressive leaders, citing Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York. “I was ahead of my time,” he said, “and it looks like time has caught up with me.”
Gravel said he gives the campaign team plenty of freedom, but he has veto power over major decisions. Oks said they have generated a campaign volunteer list with 500 names. Their social network campaign is gaining steam. “They’re just marching along,” Gravel said.
The Gravels have lived in Seaside for about two years. They lived in Pebble Beach for a time, while Whitney was a dean at what is now the Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterey. They lived in Burlingame for a while, but they returned to Monterey County to live in the Seaside Highlands.
The quirky nature of the “Gravel 2020” campaign might be appropriate, inasmuch that a lot of his political career has been marked by quixotic efforts. Gravel was “resistance” before resistance was a thing, a disruptor before anyone used the term to describe someone who upsets the status quo. The Pentagon Papers episode was shrouded with mystery and clandestine movements involving Daniel Ellsberg, a Defense Department analyst, and Bagdikian. In 1972, Gravel actively campaigned to become George McGovern’s running mate, an unusual move that hasn’t really been replicated since.
So what message would Gravel take to the Democratic primary debate if his campaign is successful?
He said he would like to stress that U.S. environmental policies are contributing to what he calls “planetary suicide.” And Gravel said he would remind voters and fellow candidates that continued proliferation of nuclear weapons remains a threat.
But when it’s all said and done — whether he is brought to the debates or not — Gravel said he is willing to support the Democratic candidate. He said he is drawn to Bernie Sanders, though he also likes Elizabeth Warren and Tulsi Gabbard.
For Oks’ part, he’s gaining valuable organization and strategy experience building a national grassroots campaign while still in high school. “It’s just an honor to help the senator in any way I can,” he said.
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