Hello? Who is this?” came the confused voice of the 89-year old former Senator.
I had arranged a Skype interview with
Mike Gravel, a left-wing outsider in the race
for the Democratic presidential nomination. He didn’t
seem to know this, but I wasn’t going to complain. Cory
Booker’s team had replied to my interview request with an
automated message asking if I wanted to apply for inclusion
on his “press release distribution list.” No, thanks.
Under any definition, Mike Gravel is not an ordinary presidential candidate. Not only is he 89 years old, but his campaign manager is 17. His policies, which include closing all US military bases abroad, are far to the left of the US political debate.
I ask him if he’s serious about running. “Of course, I’m 89 years old – by no stretch of the imagination could I get elected. But my ambition is getting the issues out there.”
Gravel ran for President before, in 2008. His firebrand campaign pledged immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq and reparations for the war’s victims. After polling be- low 1% for several weeks, he was eventually excluded from the MSNBC television debates. (Gravel still claims that MSNBC’s parent company, General Electric, conspired to sabotage his campaign due to their links with the military).
He’s clear that running for President again wasn’t his plan. “I had no intention of doing it. I was contacted by David Ok and another gentleman – Henry Williams. They asked me if I’d run for President, and I said, ‘Do you realise how old I am?’ They said, “That doesn’t make any difference for us, it’s the issues!’
“I still have the same agenda – because nothing’s changed, things just got worse. I gave them my Twitter ac- count, which I never used, to go ahead and run me, because they gave me a list of the issues that they’re interested in, which are identical to mine. But most importantly, at the top of the list was my efforts to create a Legislature of the People. And that floats my boat.”
The Legislature of the People is the latest iteration of Gravel’s enthusiasm for direct democracy, a constitutional amendment that would establish a deliberative body open to all citizens to enact, amend and repeal legislation.
I ask him what he thinks about the Brexit referendum as an example of direct democracy in action: “The people voted on the referendum, but they were not acting in a deliberative fashion. So, what the politicians did was just kick the can down the street and blame it on the people. When you have a referendum, it’s an up and down vote but it has no deliberative qualities to it.”
Gravel laments that the media never reported his proposals for direct democracy during is 2008 candidacy, preferring instead to focus on his foreign policy. I realise I haven’t heard about it in his 2020 candidacy either. In fact, there’s nothing whatsoever in his platform about direct democracy.
I don’t raise this, but Gravel is open about his marginal role in the campaign: “I wouldn’t be running if it weren’t for these young kids. I’m not travelling at all. I’m just staying here in my living room. McKinley, when he ran for President in the old days, would sit on his porch, make a speech, and his minions would go out and campaign.
“Well, I’ve also got a patio campaign. I sit on my patio in California, and these kids out of New York are running the whole show. If they’re successful in getting me into the debates, I’ll show up for the debates but not much more than that.”
With few media interviews and no sign of being allowed anywhere near the debate stage, Gravel’s public face has been his Twitter account, which is being run by the three teenagers who make up his campaign team.
The Twitter feed mixes acerbic putdowns of fellow candidates (“If you want a vision of the future under Cory Booker, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever. and every once in a while it stops for an inspirational lecture on how we should never stop dreaming.”) with sober reminders about America’s spiralling inequality and the human consequences of its foreign and immigration policies.
As well as direct democracy, some of the Senator’s more fringe views have been side-lined from the campaign. His support for a ‘citizens’ commission’ to conduct “a true investigation as to what happened” on 9/11 does not feature, and nor does his belief in UFOs.
After past statements about 9/11 resurfaced, the campaign quickly disowned the remarks: “Yes, Sen. Gravel has made these statements, and we disagree with them and don’t believe that 9/11 was an inside job. But he’s never caused anyone’s death or unjust imprisonment or helped keep people in poverty and pain, unlike Biden and Booker and Harris. Frankly, these are only words, aimed at the richest and most powerful among us, folks like Dick Cheney.”
The campaign’s hard-line stance on US foreign policy, however, is authentic Gravel. Under the slogan ‘End American Empire’, the website carries a running tally of US expenditure on ‘regime change wars’ since 2001. At almost $5.5 trillion, the website claims: “That’s enough to cover the full cost of tuition for every person wishing to enroll in community college in the United States.”
I ask Gravel if he’s serious about cutting military spend- ing in half. He tells me: “If you take a dollar from the military budget and put it into education, the dollar only employs one person for the military budget, but employs four people for the education budget. You could cut back on our imperial military establishment by 50% – this comes from [Vietnam-era Secretary of Defence] Robert MacNa- mara. He said: ‘You can cut the budget 50% and we’re not going to be at risk anywhere in the world.’”
Gravel’s stance on military spending is not really financial, however, but moral. I ask him if he really believed that America has an empire: “Totally! Totally. We followed in your footsteps, and you were wrong, and we are presently wrong. And it’s immoral. It’s immoral.
“Right today, we have the Abraham Lincoln carrier and its flotilla coming in to threaten Iran. This is sick. Iran hasn’t done anything to us. They’re not a threat to the United States, they’re not a threat to Great Britain.
“The US overthrew [democratically elected Iranian prime minister] Mossadegh in 1953 at the behest of Britain, because he had nationalised BP. We deposed him – he died shortly after, under private arrest – and we installed the Shah, who turned around, became our puppet and oppressed his people. And then the Ayatollah came in, as a revolutionary group, and is still running the country. It’s all because of us – we took away their democracy.”
I ask him what he thinks of America’s decision to reimpose sanctions on Iran: “Who are we to sanction anybody, and to pull your government into sanctioning people? Under Clinton we had sanctions against [Saddam] Hussein. During that decade 500,000 children died, and the Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said: ‘Well, that’s collateral damage.’
“That isn’t collateral damage, that’s murdering children, and we’re doing the same thing now in Venezuela. Tens of thousands of children are going to die for lack of medicine and proper food. Sanctions don’t work. Take North Korea – does it look like Kim Jong-Un missed a meal? No, they don’t work. It entrenches stronger the people who are running the country because they blame us for what’s going on.”
While other candidates on the left of the Democratic party oppose war with Iran, I suggest that few would argue America’s foreign policy is systematically oppressive. The Senator tells me: “That’s not true. This stuff is systematic. We have an arrogance, and the British have this too to a degree, we have an arrogance that thinks we’re superior to other people. This is hubris of the worst kind.
“I’ll give you an example. We are establishing a military presence in the heart of Africa. China is also dealing with Africa, but what are they doing? They’re making economic development available to the Africans to raise their standard of living.
“This whole NATO operation is really a boondoggle. When you had the implosion of the Warsaw Pact, there was no reason anymore for NATO to be there. And, by and large, the European Union recognises that there’s no real threat to them from Russia or anybody else. What happened in Ukraine was all instigated by [Victoria] Nuland, the Under- secretary of our Foreign Affairs Department, under Hillary Clinton.
“We’re only for regime change if someone doesn’t knuckle under to our economic policies. As far as regime change, we don’t see that in Saudi Arabia. We don’t see that in Egypt, or other countries. If you’re a tyrant and you suck up to us, we’ll leave you alone. But if you oppose us, we want regime change.”
A key part of Gravel’s platform is re-engaging with multilateral institutions. This includes a pledge to rejoin the Paris Accords, the Iran nuclear deal and the UN Human Rights Council, as well as signing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – effectively ending America’s nuclear threat.
The Senator explains to me: “We’ve got two major problems that are destroying the planet. There’s no question that with the advance in science and technology people on the planet are better off than they used to be, but by the same token, with the level of growth and pollution that’s going on we are slowly imploding. It may take 100 years, but unless we change this whole process and go to non-carbon based energy production we’ll destroy the planet. So that’s one. That’s a suicide pact that we’re marching towards.
“The other pact is the suicide pact that we have is with nuclear. Once he got his Nobel Peace Prize in his back pocket, Obama started refurbishing our nukes. We are go- ing to re-do our entire nuclear arsenal. They say it’s going to cost $1.7 trillion, but that’s not what it’s going to cost. The cost overrun in the Pentagon is legion. So, it’s going to cost north of $3 trillion. That could provide education and healthcare to us, but the boondoggle of it all – the mother of all boondoggles – is that none of these weapons are usable. If you unload it, you immediately trigger a nuclear winter, and we’re all going to die. You as well as us.
“The Pentagon says that this refurbishing of the arsenal is a number one priority, and the reason is that we want to be able to instil fear in people who don’t agree with us and really make them understand that we are prepared to use these nukes on a first strike capability. It doesn’t get scarier than that.”
As well as transferring all US military bases to the United Nations, a Gravel presidency would prohibit aid to Israel and Saudi Arabia and ban all arms exports. While most candidates awkwardly avoid the topic, Gravel’s team have pledged reparations – not just for the descendants of for- mer slaves, but to the descendants of those impacted by Jim Crow, settler colonialism and America’s foreign wars.
I ask Senator Gravel if Britain and America’s historical crimes are really the responsibility of today’s citizens: “No, it is our concern, because we see the legacy of this all around – worldwide. What I think the solution is is edu- cation, but in the US we have an education system that’s based upon property taxes at the local level. So, if you’ve got a rich community, they really pour money into their kids. But if you’ve got a poor community, they don’t get it. The legacy is there. Not only for slavery, but what we’ve done with our discrimination to the Latino group and the whole immigration problem.
“The other thing is to alter capitalism so that the profits of capital, which pay for the costs of capital, are shared with everybody through a loan programme. How do the rich get rich? They do it through borrowing money and getting rich off others’ money. We can set up a programme for that nationally.
“This one presidential candidate wants to give everyone $1,000 like we do in Alaska. That’s pocket change in the course of a year, for a poor person. That doesn’t cut to much. What we need to do is alter the nature of capitalism so that it does benefit the people first, and the wealthy second.”
The Gravel campaign has always been keen to make the debate stage. To participate in the debates, however, candidates must genuinely be running to win – something which the Gravel team announced on Twitter last month, despite earlier claims by Gravel that he planned to drop out and endorse the ‘most progressive candidate’.
Given the sensitivities surrounding eligibility for the TV debates, I gently ask whether there was any possibility of Gravel dropping out to endorse another candidate. The Senator laughs: “Oh, yes. Well, that’s the plan! That’s the secret plan! There’s no way, at my age… I could serve maybe 4 years, but I’d be 94! Although, if I’m in good condition, I’m still better than 95% of the people running.
“I would endorse Bernie Sanders, no question! I donated money to him at the last go-around, when he was sabotaged by Hillary, Obama and Wasserman-Schultz. Bernie would have beaten Trump in the last go-around, and I still think he could beat Trump. But what’s happening with the Democratic Party is ‘Oh, we’ve got to be careful. We’ve got to take the middle road’. There’s no middle road.”