Last weekend, C-Span radio was broadcasting live the speeches of presidential candidates before the Democratic National Committee in Washington. I was listening in the car while running errands. Bill Richardson, the New Mexico governor, was holding forth when I ducked into a store. When I got back to the car, a different candidate was speaking, a voice I didn’t recognize.

“We made a grave mistake,” he said. “We should have the courage to admit it. We must bring our troops home now–not six months from now, not a year from now–NOW! One more American death for ‘our vital interest’ is not worth it. We all know ‘vital interest’ is code for oil.”

Wow. Who is the guy?

“The Democrats in control of Congress need to act resolutely–and I’m not talking about some mealy-mouthed, non-binding resolutions. They need to precipitate a constitutional confrontation with the George Bush.”

It’s not Dennis Kucinich. I know his voice.

“We have become a nation ruled by fear. Since the end of the Second World War, various political leaders have fostered fear in the American people–fear of communism, fear of terrorism, fear of immigrants, fear of people based on race and religion, fear of gays and lesbians in love who just want to get married and fear of people who are somehow different. It is fear that allows political leaders to manipulate us all and distort our national priorities.”

Yes! I was working up real enthusiasm for this guy, but still didn’t know his name. He then assailed the American-led arms race and the claim of “American exceptionalism” made by some of his fellow candidates.

“We are indeed a great nation, one that has made significant contributions to humanity. But our leaders are promoting delusional thinking when boasting that the United States and Americans are superior to the rest of the human race. We are no better and no worse.”

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard an American politician say that. He illustrated the point by observing that Americans are mainly “Number One” in production of weapons, consumer spending, debt, people in prison, energy consumption and environmental pollution.

“The major problems we face are all global in nature–energy, the environment, terrorism, drugs, war, immigration, disease, economic and cultural globalization. These problems require global solutions that can only be addressed by concerted diplomacy and cooperation, not jingoism about America’s super power superiority.”

Amen. He talked too long, but what an inspiring speech it was. Afterwards, I learned his name–Mike Gravel, the former two-term senator from Alaska.

As a gutsy politician, Gravel was always out there. He championed the Alaska state fund that distributes the state’s vast oil revenues directly to all its citizens. During the Vietnam war, he filibustered against renewal of the military draft. He unilaterally declassified the Pentagon papers by staging a one-man hearing where he read the documents into the Congressional Record.

This year, Mike Gravel is running for president and promoting a national initiative by which citizens could legislate laws directly. Look for him at the “cattle calls” where Democratic candidates gather. He is 76 years old. He is still speaking truth to power. They can’t shut him up.