No heads turn when Mike Gravel walks into Detroit's Traffic Jam restaurant, no ripple of whispers spreading through the dining room that someone important has arrived to take a seat among the usual patrons.
That's the way things go when you're running for president but have polling numbers that hover in the 1 percent range. Even getting a little face time during a handful of televised debates doesn't make you all that familiar to a public that still isn't paying all that much attention to an election that's more than a year off.
Despite having a soft spot for quixotic candidates, I arrange to meet Gravel — a former two-term Democratic senator from Alaska who last held office in 1980 — thinking he might well end up providing a few snide laughs. You know, jokes about a candidate so low in the polls he's willing to spend an hour of precious campaign time breaking bread with the likes of me. His image as a semi-kooky fringe candidate only reinforces the idea he'll be today's main course, the slightly singed butt of low humor.
Traffic Jam is crowded for lunch when Gravel, his one-man security detail and the head of his Michigan campaign show up to meet me. He orders a bowl of broccoli-and-bluecheese soup — a daring choice. But taking chances is nothing new for Gravel. Which is something that needs to be known before any of us go writing him off as a bad joke. Whether you realize it or not, he's earned our respect, and he's earned the right to be heard.
Here's why: Back in 1971, when a military analyst named Daniel Ellsberg provided The New York Times and other papers with a copy of the Pentagon Papers — a secret study of the Vietnam War and the unconstitutional manipulations by a string of administrations that created that quagmire — the U.S. Justice Department attempted to suppress release of further information contained in the study. At the time, Gravel was conducting a five-month-long filibuster in what was an ultimately successful attempt to end the draft. Ignoring the danger of being labeled a traitor, Gravel proceeded to read 4,100 pages from the Pentagon papers, entering it into the Senate's official record, making the information public.
"I was scared to death of going to jail," recalls Gravel. But he did it, because he thought it was the right thing to do. In my book, that makes the guy a hero. So what if he comes off as cantankerous? Better that than someone blabbering on about the importance of bipartisanship — something Gravel sneers at.
Sure, there are times when you have to work with the other side to get things done, but there are also times when you don't give an inch. "When it comes to your core principles, you don't compromise," says Gravel. "You fight for them."
By this point in the conversation he's given up on the blue-cheese soup, which turns out to be a risk he shouldn't have taken. The security detail, on the other hand, has ordered a slab-size hunk of meatloaf — made with a blend of beef and veal with carrots, apples, currants and curry — so big he shares half of it with the head of the state campaign. It gets an enthusiastic thumbs-up from both men.
Gravel, on the other hand, is so fueled with anger he doesn't seem to need much food. Not that he sits at the table railing and frothing at the mouth. He's relaxed and articulate, logical and polished. But the anger's there nonetheless, roiling beneath the surface. You'd think that he'd have mellowed now that he's in his late 70s, but that's not the case. He calls the Democrats in Congress "gutless" for not cutting off the funding that could bring an immediate end to the war in Iraq. And he's livid at some of the mainstream media that he says has taken up the drumbeat for an invasion of Iran. And he tears into the corporate and political powers that have spent decades trying to neuter democracy — the war profiteers and their fellow travelers.
In fact, there's a fight going on as we speak, with MSNBC deciding to exclude Gravel from an upcoming televised debate, saying he didn't meet certain arbitrary criteria. Gravel points out that General Electric owns the network, which, along with bringing good things to life, is also a leading military contractor.
"It's censorship," he says. Even when he is in a debate, moderators from the mainstream media focus on the frontrunners. "Hillary gets 16 minutes, I get four," says Gravel about one debate. "It's pathetic."
Toward the end of the meal I tell him how I've never met a candidate who, no matter how hopeless their situation, would ever admit they had no chance of winning.
You have to have that attitude, says Gravel. Otherwise you would completely demoralize your supporters. But, in his case, there's more to it than that.
Gravel talks about moving to Alaska in the 1950s with no job prospect and no money. He was a dyslexic former military intelligence officer with a degree in economics from Columbia University, the son of French-Canadian immigrants who saw no future in pursuing politics in his native Massachusetts because the game there, he says, was dominated by the Irish and the Italians. So he went to Alaska, which wasn't even a state at the time, and within 12 years was sitting in the U.S. Senate.
In other words, life has already shown him anything can happen. So, who knows, maybe the race can still change in some unexpected way …
When it comes time to pay the bill, the security guy has to use his credit card because Gravel doesn't have his wallet with him.
"Make sure you leave a 20 percent tip," says Gravel. Then he's off and running, fueled by anger and ready to fight.
After they leave, I jab a fork into a mediocre bread pudding spiked with Grand Marnier and think about the one question Gravel had difficulty answering. We were talking about what it means to be a radical, and how it's not a negative to wear that label if you believe what you're fighting for. So what was it in his life that turned him into a radical willing to face ridicule and worse?
"I really can't answer that," he says. "I don't know. There's just something about seeing injustice that makes me bristle."
To learn more about Gravel's candidacy and his positions on the issues go to gravel2008.us.Curt Guyette is an amateur eater as well as news editor of the Metro Times. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or email@example.com