Former Alaska U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel died on Saturday at the age of 91, in Seaside, Calif. The cause of his death was myeloma.
A Democrat most of his life, he was Alaska’s senator from 1969 to 1981. He ran for president twice, in 2008 and 2020.
He was best known on the national scene for opposing the Vietnam War, trying to end the military draft, and reading the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record in 1971. Officially known as the Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force, the Pentagon Papers were stolen from the Defense Department by Daniel Ellsberg, who worked on the project for the Rand Corporation. The papers showed that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied to the public and Congress about the Vietnam War. The papers, once read into the Congressional Record, became fair game for newspapers to report.
Gravel was born and raised in Springfield, Mass. and moved to Alaska before statehood in the 1950s. He was looking for a “far-away place” where he could get a political start without having to have social or political connections, as he would have had to have in Massachusetts. He worked on the Alaska Railroad as a brakeman. He rose through the ranks of the Alaska Democratic Party, which was the dominant party in Alaska at the time. By 1957 he was a division chairman for Anchorage for the Democratic Central Committee and the next year he was president of the Alaska Young Democrats.
Soon after arriving in Alaska, he sold real estate and became a real estate developer, ran for the Alaska House of Representatives in 1962, and served in the House from 1963 until 1967. He served as Speaker of the House.
Gravel, whose full name was Maurice Robert Gravel, challenged Sen. Ernest Gruening in 1968 and beat him in the primary, and then went on to beat Elmer Rasmuson, banker and former mayor of Anchorage, in the general election. He played an important role in getting Congress to approve the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System in 1973.
He unsuccessfully ran for vice president in 1972, was reelected for his final term in the Senate in 1974, and then was defeated in the primary by Clark Gruening, who was defeated in the general election by U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, a Republican, in 1980.
After his unsuccessful bid for the presidency as a Democrat in 2008, Gravel registered as a Libertarian, but failed to get the nomination.
In 2019, he briefly launched a bid for president again. He gained the following of youthful Democratic Party radicals and idealists, who employed novel social media tactics to gain attention for the aging candidate. Some of his close associates founded the Gravel Institute to continue his work in pushing the concept of direct democracy, as an alternative to representative democracy.
He also was an advocate for legalization of marijuana and was for a time president of a marijuana startup called KUSH, which made cannabis-infused products.