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Mike Gravel (1930–2021), former U.S. Senator from Alaska

by Linnea Crowther

Mike Gravel was a Democratic U.S. Senator from Alaska as well as a two-time presidential candidate.

Political career

A native of Massachusetts, Gravel made his way to Alaska in 1956, after serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He had his sights set on politics, but with few connections in that world, he thought his chances would be better on the frontier – Alaska was then not yet a state. It was a successful gamble, and Gravel was elected to Alaska’s House of Representatives in 1963 and served two terms. He then took a long shot against an incumbent U.S. Senator in 1968 and won. In his favor were his visits to remote Alaskan towns, which he got to by sea plane – and his implied support for the war in Vietnam. Later, Gravel would come out as against the war and confess that he said he supported it because he knew it could help him win.

For many, the most memorable moment in Gravel’s two terms in the U.S. Senate came when he filibustered the Buildings and Grounds subcommittee with a reading of the Pentagon Papers in an attempt to block the renewal of the draft in the Vietnam War. The New York Times and Washington Post had recently been blocked from publishing the Pentagon Papers, and Gravel’s emotional reading became a victory for freedom of the press when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the newspapers just one day after his filibuster.

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Gravel ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008, though his campaign floundered next to competition from popular favorites Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. He later ran unsuccessfully for the 2008 Libertarian nomination for president. Gravel ran again for the Democratic nomination in 2020. If elected, he would have been 90 years old when inaugurated. Gravel tweeted that his campaign was not a particularly serious attempt: “The goal will not be to win, but to bring a critique of American imperialism to the Democratic debate stage.” However, he didn’t qualify for any of the Democratic debates, and he ended his campaign in August 2019. Gravel’s campaigns, though unsuccessful, generated buzz with unconventional campaign videos, as when he simply stared at the camera for a full minute before throwing a rock in a lake and walked away.

Notable quote

“I’m an independent kind of guy. A rough and ready kind of guy. My glands work in a certain way that make me stand up, foolishly sometimes, and fight.” —from a 1989 interview for the Anchorage Daily News

Tributes to Mike Gravel

Full obituary: Anchorage Daily News

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