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Mike Gravel, an 88-Year-Old Dark Horse 2020 Candidate Who’s a Hit With the Teens

Mike Gravel reading the Pentagon Papers into the congressional record in 1971, a characteristic act of showboating defiance. Photo: Screenshot via YouTube

Andrew Yang isn’t the only potential 2020 presidential candidate with notable support from the very young. There’s a very old politician (88 to be precise) who is the unlikely subject of a teen-led draft effort that has operated (with his consent) through his once-neglected Twitter account.

Splinter explained how this all happened:

[David] Oks, a high school senior who has previously run for mayor of his small New York town, told Splinter that he and several friends are avid listeners of the Chapo Trap House podcast, which mentioned Gravel in a recent episode. About a week ago, he and a couple friends reached out to Gravel and asked if he would consider making another run for president. Their pitch was clear. “My friends and I were encouraging him to consider running for president with the idea being that he would not try to contest any primaries, he would just try to get into the Democratic debates,” he said.

Oks and his friends were clearly inspired by Gravel’s performance in the 2008 debates, where he delivered a searing indictment of the vast majority of his fellow candidates for their support of the Iraq war and their continued commitment to American interventionism in the Middle East.

Indeed, most everyone outside Alaska (which he represented in the U.S. Senate from 1969 until 1981) who has heard of Gravel probably remembers his virtually unfunded 2008 Democratic presidential candidacy, which, thanks to his Senate background, succeeded in getting him into early debates where he served as a bit of an antiwar gadfly. His hostility to U.S. interventionism, however, dated back to a much earlier moment of national notoriety, in 1971, when, as Dan Froomkin explained, Gravel “entered 4,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers into the congressional record just before the U.S. Supreme Court lifted an injunction on publishing them in the press.” The papers, a collection of internal DoD memos and other materials documenting the planning and execution of the Vietnam War, offered a searing indictment of U.S. foreign policy, which is why the Nixon administration battled unsuccessfully to keep them secret.

The dramatics of Gravel’s maneuver were typical of his Senate career, which showed considerable courage but also generated charges of showboating and insufficient attention to routine duties. His hostility to U.S. interventionism abroad has been his most consistent position (his own edition of the Pentagon Papers was edited and annotated by lefty anti-imperialist stalwarts Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn), but he annoyed progressives in Alaska by his steady support for development interests. In the end, his Senate career was perfectly bookended: He first won statewide office in 1968 by narrowly defeating Alaska icon Ernest Gruening (best known nationally as one of just two senators who voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution used by LBJ as authorization for the Vietnam War) in a primary campaign that was about generational change rather than issues, and then lost a 1980 primary to Gruening’s grandson. He was ultimately replaced in the Senate by Frank Murkowski, father of current Alaska GOP senator Lisa Murkowski).

So there’s a lot of ancient history associated with Gravel’s career, and a lot of what is generally called “eccentricity.” After his 2008 Democratic campaign sputtered to an end, he switched parties and unsuccessfully sought the Libertarian presidential nomination. Back in 1972, he drew attention to himself by openly campaigning to become his party’s vice-presidential nominee (which might not have been a bad idea given George McGovern’s disastrous choice of Thomas Eagleton, later forced from the ticket for undisclosed drunk driving charges and mental health treatments).

In the broad context of this man’s career, being drafted by teenagers into what sounds like an extended flame war against Democratic candidates for insufficient anti-imperialism fits right in. Rolling Stone records some early heat from the Gravel twitter account:

The account has also fired off several scathing attacks of Gravel’s prospective opponents, including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), who “kept innocent men on death row”; Joe Biden, who “voted for the Iraq War”; Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who likes to “abuse American workers”; and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who “invented a drug dealer friend (and voted with Big Pharma).” The account also attacked Booker’s “melodramatic” performance during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing last year while touting Gravel reading the Pentagon Papers into the congressional record in 1971. Meanwhile, the account seems to favor Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), candidates it wants push “toward more sensible views on political reform and foreign policy through the debate.”

Gravel’s apparent goal of recapitulating his 2008 debate performances could run into the clear objective requirements the DNC has set out for the first 2020 debate, limiting total participation to 20 candidates and setting minimum thresholds for poll showings or national fundraising ability. So his teen legions had better get a move on if they want to develop enough of a cult following to trump the Democratic field’s septuagenarians with a debater who will turn 90 in 2020.

Mike Gravel, the 88-Year-Old Pol Who Is a Hit With the Teens