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“The abrogation of the people’s right to know–one of the system’s most important checks and balances–caused this nation to make this colossal mistake of waging a war that has nothing to do with our security, individually or as a nation.”

Mike Gravel wrote those words not about Iraq now but about Vietnam in 1972. Back then, he was one of the most passionate, eloquent and daring opponents of the war and of the executive secrecy and Congressional complicity that allowed the war to continue long after public support for it had collapsed. Today, even as the nation experiences an eerie déjà vu, it seems to have forgotten the most crucial lessons of Vietnam. Mike Gravel has not. He is every bit as resolute in his resistance to war now as he was then, and of all the presidential candidates he is the most steadfast critic of the principle of American imperialism, which spawned both catastrophes.

Gravel’s courage was on magnificent display in the summer of 1971 when, as a 41-year-old first-term senator from Alaska, he conducted a one-man, five-month filibuster against renewal of the draft–much to the consternation of the Democratic leadership, many of whom opposed the war in theory but were too timid to end the President’s ability to wage it. His defiance caught the eye of Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. Having published an excerpt, the Times was under a court injunction (pursued by Nixon) to prevent further publication of the Papers. Ellsberg figured that if a senator read the Papers during a meeting of Congress, they would become a matter of public record, and the senator would be immune from prosecution under the “speech or debate” clause (nobody was sure then about this last part). Ellsberg approached antiwar Senators McGovern, Fulbright and Nelson, but after he was rebuffed or stonewalled by all, he turned to Gravel, who on June 29 began reading the Papers in a special session of the buildings and grounds subcommittee (the only body he could convene). Exhausted from his filibuster, hampered by dyslexia, voice cracking and tears streaming, Gravel was forced to stop at 1:12 am, but not before he had placed 4,100 pages of the Papers into the record.

Over the next few days, newspapers reported “dismay, shock and chagrin” at the “impetuous Senator” and warned of possible punishment, including expulsion from the Senate. Though Gravel was never prosecuted, Ellsberg was indicted for theft and espionage. An aide to Gravel and Beacon Press–which published the Pentagon Papers as the Senator Mike Gravel Edition (edited by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn)–were investigated by the Justice Department, which Gravel fought all the way to the Supreme Court. The draft was eventually ended in 1973, and America’s military involvement in Vietnam came to a close in 1975. Credit for this historic reversal belongs largely to the clamorous antiwar movement, but that uprising found a true and brave friend in national office in Mike Gravel.

As the Iraq War continues unabated against the will of the people, Democrats ought to look to Gravel as an inspiration. Instead he is treated as a joke, a fringe candidate who makes puzzling YouTube ads and throws bombs at his more prosperous rivals. Indeed, NBC recently barred Gravel–and only him–from a presidential debate under the premise that his campaign had not raised $1 million.

The fact is: Mike Gravel is funny, outlandish and honest–often brutally so. He’s said that American troops “died in vain” in Vietnam and Iraq, derided his fellow Democrats as “gutless wonders” and advised Americans to “grow up,” pay more for gas and “get off the dependency in the Middle East.” He bucked the strain of American nationalism–so prominent during election season–when he observed that “our leaders are promoting delusional thinking when boasting that the United States and Americans are superior to the rest of the human race.” He’s even had the nerve to tell Americans that they are “getting fatter and dumber.”

So discomforting has been his campaign that it would be convenient for many–especially the leading Democratic contenders–if he were ushered offstage. But the rush to dismiss his candidacy reveals a more unnerving fact–sometimes the truth hurts, so much so that it can only be accommodated as a hyperbole, an outrage, a joke.

But on many issues that matter to this magazine, Gravel’s positions cannot be laughed off. He is avowedly prochoice and pro-gay rights. He supports universal healthcare, affirmative action, citizenship for immigrants and campaign finance reform. He’s against the death penalty and the “war on drugs.” He wants to make fighting global warming a national priority and to cut the military budget in half. In regard to the Iraq War, he supports immediate withdrawal and reparations for the Iraqi people.

In this presidential race’s cynical calculus of probability, we are told to abandon any candidate who drifts to the left of what the media have deemed electable. But if there is any virtue in a drawn-out campaign season, shouldn’t it be that it gives us more time to cling to our truest values? In reality, Mike Gravel will never win the Democratic nomination, and his daffiest proposals (the National Initiative and the abolition of the income tax in favor of a progressive sales tax) will never become policy. But in his unvarnished candor about the political process and visible frustration at America’s willingness to wage illegitimate war, Gravel is a bracing left presence on the campaign trail. As such, he will be forced to bow out sooner rather than later. When he does, I’ll switch my allegiance to the least objectionable candidate remaining, until a year from now, when I’ll vote for the Democrat left standing. But isn’t it nice, for the time being, to support a candidate you actually agree with?

Other Essays in This Series

John Nichols for Joseph Biden
Ellen Chesler for Hillary Clinton
Katherine S. Newman for John Edwards
Bruce Shapiro for Christopher Dodd
Gore Vidal for Dennis Kucinich
Michael Eric Dyson for Barack Obama
Rocky Anderson for Bill Richardson