Consortium News‘ editor-in-chief sent this video message to the memorial celebration of the life of Sen. Mike Gravel in Washington on Saturday.
By Joe Lauria
I‘m especially sorry not to be with Whitney, Lynne, Mike’s sister Marie and all the other remarkable people I met through Mike. Whitney has printed up copies of the article I wrote about Mike right after we lost him. It tells the story of how I met Mike, my experiences with him on the campaign trail in 2008 and of writing the book A Political Odyssey with him.
As he has been for many of you in the room, Mike became one of the most influential people in my life. He meant much to so many people across America, inspiring hope that things can be different.
Mike increased our knowledge of what is wrong in the United States and in the world and how it can be fixed.
As I write in the article, when I met him I could not believe Mike was an American politician. Here was a former United States senator questioning the most fundamental and seemingly unshakeable myths that underpin a brutal status-quo. The central myth, affecting foreign and domestic policy, is that U.S. behavior abroad is driven by an altruistic need to spread democracy and that its vast military machine is defensive in nature. Mike believed that if Americans would be convinced that the opposite is true, the edifice of lies that supports an imperial house of cards could crumble.
Here was someone from the heart of the system vowing to undermine it by declaring–eventually on a debate stage with Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden–that Americans’ motives abroad are avaricious and aggressive, its military offensive, and its consequence death and destruction, not democracy.
It is suicidal for a politician to tell American voters that America’s motives are impure, that they are not the “good guys” in the world, and that money that should be spent on them at home is wasted destroying innocent lives abroad.
But that is what Mike did.
Even before he was sworn into the Senate Mike showed tremendous guts and principle, rare in that chamber. After he had promised to vote for Russell Long for whip, Mike got a telephone call from Sen. Ted Kennedy asking for his support for that position. As Mike tells the story in the book:
“I cut Kennedy off and told him: “From an ideological point of view, you’d be my candidate. But I’m not going to start off my career by giving my word of support and then chucking it to go with you.” Mike hadn’t even been sworn in yet and his credibility would be in question.
“Oh, I understand,” Kennedy said and Mike thought that was the end of it. But these are the Kennedys. You don’t turn the Kennedys down, Mike says. “I was a brand new man coming in to the exclusive club and I had refused to become a Kennedy man. He wanted me on a leash, like he had others. So he unleashed his people on me. They hounded me to get my vote.
Before the election for whip Mike called him. “Look, Ted, get these people off my fucking back,” he said. “I told you my situation. I’m sorry I can’t support you. But you get them off my back.”
Ted Kennedy hadn’t been spoken to like that in a very long time. Mike was sworn in on January 3, 1969, and the vote for whip was held. Ted won. He took over the committee on committees, giving him the power to determine who served on what committees. Mike requested to be on the Commerce Committee. When he didn’t get it, he asked Sen. Robert Byrd why. He said Ted objected. Mike was placed on Environment and Public Works instead. He also had to serve on the Energy Committee under Scoop Jackson, Mike’s arch enemy in the Senate.
“I gave it back to Ted a few times on the floor, and he realized he screwed the wrong guy,” Mike said. “So he tried to make it up to me. When my wife’s father died I had to tell him, since he was whip, that I would be absent from the Senate for the funeral. Ted sent flowers to this very modest Montana farmer. It was a big deal at the service when those flowers arrived from the presumed next president of the United States.”
Mike’s record in the Senate and his powerful ideas to transform America in his later years are well known to you. They were arrogantly dismissed by the powerful. But it doesn’t mean we have to give up on Mike’s vision.
Mike was a loyal friend. He was always a presence in your life, always there on the other end of phone when you needed to speak. I can’t believe he’s gone.