Opinions

Mike Gravel was an iconoclast whose big ideas lost him a U.S. Senate seat. Time has proven many of them were right.

In 1968, an extraordinary set of circumstances put a pair of ambitious young men in the U.S. Senate representing Alaska, each replacing an icon of the previous era, both to shape the subsequent development of the state.

And they hated each other.

One of those young men was Ted Stevens, who went on to serve 40 years in the Senate, and whose towering legacy includes today’s Alaska-style socialism, with the economy’s ongoing dependence on federal spending.

The other young man was Mike Gravel, who died on Saturday. Gravel served 12 years in the Senate and left Alaska for good after an ignominious electoral defeat in 1980. His Alaska legacy is important, as well, but in many ways he represents a path not traveled.

[Mike Gravel, who represented Alaska in the U.S. Senate from 1969-1981, dies at 91]

Stevens and Gravel were not far apart in their goals for Alaska. Both wanted the trans-Alaska pipeline built, a generous settlement for Alaska Native land claims and a pro-development resolution to the conservation lands battle that dominated the 1970s.

But in personality, outlook and tactics, they were opposites. One was a pragmatist and plodder, the other an idealist and a showboat. One brought home the bacon, funneled money to the military and didn’t try to rock the boat. The other dreamed of stopping war, building a self-sustaining Alaska economy and fundamentally changing American democracy.

You can probably guess which one succeeded.

I was only 5 years old in 1968, but as a writer I interviewed Stevens and Gravel, as well as Gov. Wally Hickel, who told me the story of appointing Stevens to the Senate when I helped him write a book, and Jack Roderick, the former borough mayor who was Gravel’s lawyer and Stevens’s law partner. I was editing Roderick’s memoirs last year when he died.

All these men, and many others like them, came to Alaska with powerful ambition and used the territory that became a state as an easy route to power. Unlike anyone else, however, Gravel was an idealist and dreamer unable to restrain his imagination or his ego. He ultimately became a laughing stock.

But when I last talked to him, in 2016, I was amazed to realize how many of his crazy ideas from the 1970s had turned out to be correct. In the column I wrote, I still pointed out his continued oddities, however, including his belief the government had evidence of UFOs.

I thought of him again last week when that one turned out to be correct too.

Gravel arrived in Alaska in 1956 and ran for the Territorial Legislature only two years later, at age 28. He won a seat in the House in 1962 as a Democrat (then the state’s dominant political party). The same year, Stevens, seven years older, won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate but was defeated by the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Ernest Gruening.

Roderick recalled driving Stevens from Anchorage to Copper Center to speak about politics and government to youngsters at a Boys State convention, with various other politicians. Gravel talked about the need to hold power when in the majority. Stevens followed by talking about the need for restraint when holding power, to protect the minority.

In 1964, Stevens was elected to the Alaska House and Gravel became speaker that next term. He described himself in the role as an autocrat.

In 1968, both ran for Gruening’s seat in the U.S. Senate. Stevens was defeated in the Republican primary by banker Elmer Rasmuson while Gravel beat Gruening in the Democratic primary and went on to defeat Rasmuson as well.

How could a 38-year-old Alaska newbie beat Gruening, the father of statehood? Gravel attributed the win largely to the Native land claims issue. Gruening, although a champion of equal rights, took an old-fashioned view of Natives’ demands. But Gravel was a man of the 1960s, with new views on social justice.

Age was probably a factor too. As Big Oil arrived in Alaska and brought new people, the average age of the population fell to below 23 years. Many voters probably didn’t know about Gruening’s illustrious past but would have liked Gravel’s handsome, contemporary, dynamic image.

Roderick remembered Stevens being crushed and despondent over his loss to Rasmuson, but he soon pulled a lucky card. Democratic Sen. Bob Bartlett, another giant of the statehood era, died that December, leaving Gov. Hickel to appoint his replacement. Stevens had just passed a law allowing the governor to appoint someone from the opposite party of the dead incumbent — someone such as himself.

Hickel would be expected to pick Rasmuson, who had won that year’s Republican primary over Stevens, or businessman Carl Brady, to whom he had promised a big appointment. He picked Stevens, he said, because he could see he was a fighter and because, at his young age, he would last a long time and gain seniority.

That was exactly what Stevens did. He kept his head down, worked with more powerful mentors and operated within the system, slowly hammering out deals on the monumental issues then facing the state.

Gravel, on the other hand, immediately leapt forward on the biggest national issues. Opposing the war in Vietnam (as Gruening had also courageously done), he held a long-talking filibuster against the draft. During his speech, he put the Pentagon Papers on the Congressional Record, effectively making public the military’s secret history of its failures and deception during the war.

Stevens worked on Alaska pipeline authorization through a careful process with a committee chair. But Gravel impulsively threw it to a floor vote, which passed on a tie with the vice president casting the deciding vote — and the pipeline went ahead.

Stevens negotiated a solution to the conservation lands issue. In 1978, Gravel filibustered that, too, leading to President Jimmy Carter declaring national monuments of the disputed lands.

By then, Gravel had outlasted his welcome. By his own account, he had alienated Alaska Natives and progressive Democrats. His grandstanding and big ideas were openly ridiculed.

Among the crazy ideas — that Alaska should not rely on oil for its permanent economy, but should use the brief influx of wealth to build infrastructure for a year-round tourism industry.

Oh well.

Ernest Gruening’s grandson, Clark, beat Gravel in the 1980 Democratic primary, then Frank Murkowski beat Clark Gruening in Ronald Reagan’s landslide. Few Democrats have won statewide office since without help from a fluke or a split vote.

I asked Gravel about his legacy in 2016. I pointed out that he had been involved in almost every big issue, had advanced many important ideas and that time had often proved him correct.

He had more humility than I expected. He said he hadn’t accomplished so much, but he had touched many issues.

And then, true to form, he launched into another new idea that, he said, “Would change the nature of human governance.”

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

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