This is interview #23 in JohnsonForAmerica.com’s “Important Voices” series, where we talk with key figures, such as elected officials, candidates, authors, commentators, and policy experts, about the issues of the day. A new interview is released every Monday and every Thursday, so check back often!
Our guest for today’s Important Voices interview is Mike Gravel. Mike is a former Democratic Senator from Alaska, from 1969 to 1981. Born and raised in Springfield, Massachusetts to French-Canadian immigrant parents, Gravel served in the United States Army in West Germany and graduated from Columbia University. He moved to Alaska in the late 1950s, becoming a real estate developer and entering politics. He served in the Alaska House of Representatives from 1963 to 1966 and became its Speaker of the House. Gravel was elected to the United States Senate in 1968. As Senator, Gravel became nationally known for his forceful attempts to end the draft during the Vietnam War and for having put the Pentagon Papers into the public record in 1971 despite risk to himself. In 2006, Mike began a run for the Democratic nomination for President. In March 2008, he switched to the Libertarian Party to compete for its presidential nomination. Mike now lives in Arlington County, Virginia with his wife, Whitney.
Josiah Schmidt: In 2008, you switched party affiliations from the Democratic Party to the Libertarian Party. What prompted you to do so?
Mike Gravel: Well, essentially the Democratic Party had thrown me out. I was running as a presidential candidate, and there was sort of a conspiracy between General Electric, a large Pacific contractor, and Head of the Democratic Party Howard Dean. They conspired to take me out of the debates. I had been in the first ten debates. They took me out of the debates in September of ’07. So, I was essentially out of it. So I moved over to the Libertarian Party, tried to get that nomination, yet I failed in that regard. I was pretty upset over that. I was just trying to get a venue to expose The National Initiative, which is really why I ran for President.
Josiah Schmidt: It seems like America keeps going farther and farther in the wrong direction as far as foreign policy goes. In the 1950’s, even Republican President Dwight Eisenhower ridiculed anyone who promoted the concept of “pre-emptive war.” Yet, in the 2008 election, you were ridiculed by the supposedly anti-war Democratic Party for merely saying that you would take a pre-emptive nuclear strike off the table! As someone who has seen a lot in the political world, how alarmed are you at how far America has lost its way on war issues?
Mike Gravel: Very alarmed. Here’s what I think has happened. You mentioned Eisenhower–that’s extremely significant. He really sounded the alarm that we would lose our democracy as a result of a union between corporate America and the military leadership coming together. And that’s what’s happening. And what’s significant, I think, is that no president since Eisenhower has even acknowledged the problem, and it’s now much, much worse than it was during my time. Because at least during the Vietnam Era, people were revolting against the excesses of the warfare state. Now, there’s no revolt at all against it, and you now have Obama as the President, who has a larger defense budget–or a war budget, more accurately–than did George Bush. There’s no reaction to that at all. So, it just goes forward, and further forward, and we see a foreign policy that is just totally run amok. We are the problem in the world.
Josiah Schmidt: How do you think our government’s current foreign policy in the Middle East is affecting our national security here at home?
Mike Gravel: It jeopardizes it. It totally jeopardizes our security, because the more we go to war, the more we energize jihadists–the people who hate the United States, who have suffered as a result of our policies, who want to strike back, and who strike back the only way they can strike back, which is through terrorism. There’s no country on Earth that would even think of attacking us. The problem we have is the problem of terrorism, but we engender that with our foreign policy.
Josiah Schmidt: Do you think there’s any end in sight for the current wars the government has involved us in?
Mike Gravel: No, not at all, and it will expand from there. We saw that with the implosion of communism. They said we’d have a peace dividend, that we’d be able to really get out and about, and change our whole priorities–well, that didn’t happen at all. Saddam Hussein unfortunately saved the military-industrial complex, and we had two Saddam wars, now we have an Afghan War, and now we’re going to be going into Yemen. There’s just no end to it at all. And all of this in order to permit corporate America–the military aspects of corporate America–to go out there and make profits. They can’t make profits if there’s no war and if there’s no threat of imminent danger. And there is no imminent danger with respect to either a country threatening us, or even terrorism threatening us. It’s more of a threat to us to die of cancer or on our highways than an American dying of terrorist activities.
Josiah Schmidt: During the Vietnam era, you were the leader of the anti-conscription movement. What, in your opinion, is wrong with the concept of the draft?
Mike Gravel: First off, it appropriates unlimited numbers of young men to a political decision–that’s what’s wrong. We had 500,000 troops in Vietnam at the high point, and now the best they can do in Iraq is 150,000. The unintended consequence of forcing an end to the draft, is, of course, going to contractors. We have as many contractors in Iraq as we have military troops. And I think we could say the same for Afghanistan. And we could say the same for the Pentagon. We have more contractors operating out of the Pentagon than we have uniformed, military people.
Josiah Schmidt: Do you fear a return of the draft any time soon?
Mike Gravel: No, not at all. I don’t think it’s going to be possible, because if you’re going to draft young men, you’re going to have to draft young ladies, and I don’t think the conservative religious right will put up with that. Secondly, if you draft anybody today, two years won’t cut it. You’d have to draft them for four to six years so that they could be meaningful soldiers, because of the technology that’s required on the battlefield. And here too, I don’t think people would permit their lives to be appropriated for four to six years in the draft. So, no, I don’t think the draft is necessary, one, for a peaceful nation, two, it’s not going to be palatable to the far right, nor is it going to be palatable to a lot of generals, who respect and know the benefits of a volunteer force. The problem today is not the military from the point of view of a military force, the problem today is the military-industrial complex, which is not necessarily tied to the number of people in the military. The military-industrial complex is tied to the political forces which sustain that. And that of course is the Congress and the President, who are bought out by this economic interest, to continue our imperialistic policies worldwide.
Josiah Schmidt: You’re also well-known for being the Senator to get the contents of the Pentagon Papers into the public record. As someone who put his career on the line for the sake of openness and accountability in government, how disappointed are you by the secrecy and dishonesty of the current administration?
Mike Gravel: Very disappointed. And, of course, there’s a new movie out, and it’s up for an Oscar. It’s called “The Most Dangerous Man in America.” It’s about what Daniel Ellsberg did in releasing the papers–the courage it took on his part, and the risk on his part. It’s a very, very good movie, very well done. I hope it gets an Oscar, and I’d recommend to anybody to go see it, so that you can begin to get a handle on what happened during that era, and how reflective it is to what the situation is today. Dan, not too long ago, asked me, “Is the cowardice unusual in the Congress today, from what it was during your time?” And my response to that was, “No, it’s just all cowardice. That’s all there is to it.”
Josiah Schmidt: Could you quickly summarize your position on the Drug War?
Mike Gravel: We should decriminalize marijuana. I mean, it is an abomination that we take a substance like marijuana, which is not addictive, not a gateway drug, and we put thousands–hundreds of thousands of people–into jail for that. It’s not a criminal element at all. In fact, it’s less addictive than alcohol. And with respect to hard drugs, we should decriminalize them and treat them as they really are. It’s a public health issue. So, if people want drugs, they do what they presently do to get drugs: they go to a doctor and get a prescription, get yourself registered, so that when you want to be helped, we’re there to help you. This stuff with treating it as a criminal element, all it does is rather than put the doctor in charge of drug distribution, we put the criminal in charge of drug distribution. We know that Prohibition never worked with alcohol, it doesn’t work with drugs, and we spent over the last 40 years a trillion dollars on this, have destabilized foreign governments, have destabilized a major, major portion of our own population in this regard. We have spent a treasure on prisons, when we should be spending this treasure on education.
Josiah Schmidt: What are a couple of the most important issues to Alaskans right now?
Mike Gravel: Well, I would say that they should have spent more money on education–they didn’t. I think on education they are about 16th in the states. With the wealth that they have, they should have really poured the money into educating their young people, making it the number one priority. With respect to Alaska, they need to concentrate on getting an economic base that’s not reliant entirely on resources alone. They’ve not done a good job in that regard.
Josiah Schmidt: What is the most important lesson that you have learned during your involvement in politics?
Mike Gravel: That is that the people are smarter than their leaders. And their leaders just don’t accept that, don’t realize that. And that’s the reason why I’ve devoted the rest of my life to try to develop legislation and try to get legislation enacted by the people, because the Congress will never do this, that empowers the people to make laws. Bringing the people into the operation of government as partners–legislative partners–where they can make laws in partnership with their elected officials. It becomes a win-win, where the people set the policy, and their elected officials execute that policy on a day to day basis. It works better, and the people become more responsible than they are today, and they need a lot more responsibility in order to mature civically, if we’re going to have the nation that we think we should have, but don’t have, because we get carried away with our sense of entitlement, with our triumphalism, which is not merited at all in the world.
Josiah Schmidt: Are there any other words of wisdom you’d like to leave our readers with?
Mike Gravel: Well, they can go to my website, which is MikeGravel.us, or NationalInitiative.us, and become informed as to how they can become legislators. And to be aware that I am working on a television series called “I Like Mike,” which will be a cross between The West Wing and The Office, where I become virally elected as President, and will be out there dealing with the issues and taking on all of the special interests in the area of this. So, watch for that program.
Josiah Schmidt: When and where will we be able to see that?
Mike Gravel: Well, we’ll be shooting hopefully in a couple months, and we’re still negotiating as to where.
Josiah Schmidt: Awesome. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your schedule to talk with us today, Mr. Gravel.
Mike Gravel: You’re welcome.