Some of this former Alaska senator's ideas maybe weren't so crazy after all

Alaska voters bounced Mike Gravel after two terms in the U.S. Senate when he was tagged with having nutty ideas, but 36 years later some of his ideas seem prescient.

People made fun of Gravel in the 1970s for trying to push Alaska toward winter tourism to diversify the economy. It turns out that could have been a far better approach than the state's failed investments in agriculture, rocketry, megaprojects and so forth.

Back then he wanted Alaskans to own part of the oil pipeline. Many now believe that part ownership could have yielded great wealth and control.

Today it doesn't seem so crazy that he's CEO of a publicly traded marijuana company and his anti-war comments in the 2008 presidential campaign have worn well, too.

But he also has criticized a perceived government cover-up of UFOs, among other outspoken positions that remain on the fringe. For example, he believes all drugs should be legalized.

Maybe Gravel is such a volcano of ideas that some are bound to be right. In any event, he's a fascinating guy. On Thursday he will give a public lecture at the University of Alaska Anchorage at 7 p.m. in room 118 of the Social Sciences Building.

Gravel, originally from Massachusetts, came to Alaska after military service with the plan, as he says in a book co-authored with Joe Lauria, that the small, fast-growing state would be a relatively easy place to start a political career.


"I went up there broke, and 12 years later I was in the U.S. Senate," Gravel said in a telephone interview.

Gravel was elected to the State House in 1962 and became speaker in 1965. In 1968, at 38, he ran against one the giants of the Alaska statehood movement, Sen. Ernest Gruening, and shocked the political world by beating him in the Democratic primary.

The 12 years Gravel served in the Senate were the most important in Alaska history. He worked on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act, and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. He opposed the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which set the 200-mile limit for fisheries. He supported an international approach instead.

Sen. Ted Stevens has been canonized as the leader of those tumultuous times. But key legislation that approved the construction of the pipeline in 1973 was the Gravel Amendment, which exempted the project from environmental laws. Gravel's maverick strategy won that fight.

Stevens and Gravel fought over ANILCA. Gravel wanted to kill the lands bill with a filibuster, but Stevens made a deal to go ahead. Pro-development Alaskans might have gotten their way with Gravel's approach.

Gravel made his name nationally in 1971 when he read the Pentagon Papers aloud in the Senate. The document was a secret 7,000-page report on the errors and falsehoods that had propelled the disastrous Vietnam War. President Nixon had won court orders to stop newspapers from publishing it. Gravel's reading blew the document open to the public.

But by 1980, Gravel had outworn his welcome in Alaska, alienating various constituencies and gaining a reputation for crazy ideas, including his winter tourism plan, which the Anchorage Daily News indelibly caricatured as calling for a Teflon dome over Denali (in fact, Gravel wanted to build an all-weather village at the park under a tent to keep visitors coming year-round).

Ernest Gruening's grandson, Clark, defeated Gravel in the 1980 Democratic primary, and then Frank Murkowski beat Clark Gruening in the Reagan landslide that fall.

Gravel was devastated by his defeat and left Alaska permanently. He suffered through a directionless decade and went bankrupt. Beset by recurrent health and money problems, he seemed to disappear while others largely wrote him out of Alaska history.

"I was very disappointed," he said. "I was disappointed in the fact that it wasn't the democracy that I thought it was, and I wasn't the leader I thought I should be, and so for 10 years I made no public speeches at all."

But in 2008, he dramatically reappeared, debating next to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary. He grabbed the spotlight by blasting the Iraq War and labeling the other candidates as part of a corrupt political system. Those performances and a strange, wordless commercial made him a celebrity online.

The video, which Gravel said was the idea of a couple of young high school teachers in California, shows him staring silently into the camera for a full minute before he turns away, throws a rock into a pond, and then walks off into the distance for another minute and half.

It has been viewed more than 1,250,000 times.

Decades before Sen. Bernie Sanders' success opposing the influence of money in politics, Gravel regained his energy and direction by attacking a system he said is rigged to keep a moneyed elite in power. His solution, worked out in detail over years, is direct democracy: allowing the public to vote on federal law, and even to amend the U.S. Constitution.

I raised the worry of allowing a public vote on matters as fundamental as the Bill of Rights.

Gravel said, "If you don't trust the majority, you then insist on trusting the minority, and that's what we have today. We are ruled by the 1 percent. So when I come along and say, let's be ruled by the 90 percent, you say that's dangerous. Well, is it any more dangerous than being ruled by the 1 percent?"

Now Gravel hopes Sanders will convert his political movement to supporting this direct voting idea.


I agree our democracy is broken. While I don't agree with Gravel's idea, I respect that he picked up on the problem before others and advanced a radical solution. He deserves credit for having ideas and pursuing them regardless of the consequences. As a result, he has had an lasting impact on Alaska.

His explanation of that weird campaign commercial summed it up: "You turn around and throw a rock in the water, and that is the process of doing something with my life, and after I've done it, it causes ripples that are never-ending."

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.