In the tradition of the late Paul Tsongas, the former Massachusetts senator who in 1991 launched a decidedly uphill run for the Democratic presidential nomination and succeeded in making his concerns about deficit spending central to the national discourse, another former U.S. senator will launch a presidential campaign Monday that seeks to highlight big ideas — in this case about the Constitution and direct democracy.
Mike Gravel, who represented Alaska as a maverick Democratic Senate from 1969 to 1981, will announce his candidacy for the Democratic nomination with a press conference at the National Press Club.
Gravel came to national prominence in 1971, during the struggle over the Pentagon Papers, the secret official study that detailed how missteps and manipulations by successive U.S. administrations and their agents had created the quagmire that was the Vietnam War. Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst, provoked a national uproar when he put the report in the hands of the New York Times, which published portions of it in June of that year. The Justice Department moved to block further publication of information from the Pentagon Papers and to punish newspaper publishers who revealed the contents. At that point, Gravel, a war critic, stepped in. The senator tried to read the contents of the study into the Senate record and to release them to the public, arguing that he had the authority to do so as a senator communicating with his constituents. He then sought to publish the papers in book form as The Senator Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers [Beacon Press]. When Justice Department went after the senator and his publisher, Gravel fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court. While lower courts expressed sympathy for the Gravel’s stance, the high court rejected his claim that as a senator he had a right and a responsibility to share official documents with his constituents. Fortunately for Gravel, publicity surrounding the case was so damning to the administration’s position that it finally backed off.
The Pentagon Papers battle was a classic Mike Gravel fight. A scrappy former speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives, the senator had little patience with the secrecy and compromises of official Washington. An unrelenting critic of nuclear weapons testing on the Alaskan island of Amchitka, he came to the Capitol prepared to take on presidents and fellow senators, and he did so repeatedly. Gravel clashed not just with the Nixon administration but with fellow Democrats who counseled a more cautious approach to a president who, before Watergate, was perceived as being both popular and powerful. It was Gravel who in 1971, against the advice of Democratic leaders in the Senate, launched a one-man filibuster to end the peactime military draft, forcing the administration to cut a deal that allowed the draft to expire in 1973.