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Mike Gravel's big

Mike Gravel's big


Presidential candidate Mike Gravel's views on LGBT issues are a refreshing change, but can his candidacy garner enough popular support to really make waves?

Mike Gravel became a cinematic sensation via an unlikely three-minute video on YouTube that was picked up by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show in mid June. Gravel, a former Democratic senator from Alaska and the darkest of dark horses in the presidential race, stares point-blank into a camera with a lake and a walkway in the backdrop. He stares...and stares. His lips quiver slightly, but his gaze stays locked. After 70 rather eerie seconds of silence, he turns around, picks up a rock with both hands, heaves it into the lake, and walks away.

The video reminds me a bit of a self-portrait assignment I was once given in a college photography class. One guy presented a stark black-and-white picture of a toaster lying on the sidewalk and explained that, somehow, it was a metaphor for his life. Only difference is, Gravel's running for president of the United States and his masterwork has been viewed over 160,000 times. It's not quite Obama Girl at 2 million hits to date, but combine it with clips of him in the South Carolina Democratic debates, and Gravel's YouTube airtime is approaching that of Sen. George Allen's "macaca" gaffe during the 2006 midterm election.

Prior to the first presidential debate in South Carolina this April, barely a soul had heard of the 76-year-old Mike Gravel, let alone the fact that he was a candidate. He made an impression there--his demeanor frank, comical, and angry at turns. He allowed as how all the top-tier candidates "frighten" him and said that he was embarrassed by the actions of the Democratic-controlled Congress. After he hadn't been asked a question for quite some time, he noted that he was beginning to feel like a "potted plant" on the stage.

Watching him wasn't much different from watching the video: the experience was provocative yet slightly disturbing. His break with political etiquette was so complete that even his polished political rivals on stage were left wondering whether to laugh or not when his angry-old-man routine came out.

Even his wife of 23 years, Whitney Gravel, said at the time, "As a spouse, I was uncomfortable because his passion came through as anger. I was concerned people would only see the anger and not understand the passion."

Perhaps Senator Gravel was channeling the Democratic base, because a steady stream of small checks started rolling in, totaling about $100,000 within a month, according to his aides--$75,000 more than he had raised up to that point.

"I get really touched as I open up these envelopes," said Mrs. Gravel. "One guy sent a check and in the little description part he just wrote the word Truth."

As the checks flowed, so did the radio and interview offers, and thus the "Rock" was born along with Gravel's fledgling candidacy.

That's when, given the airtime, Gravel started saying some pretty interesting things about gays and lesbians and homosexuality in general.

In an appearance on The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert in May, Gravel gave this explanation for why "don't ask, don't tell" was a counterproductive policy: "If you have any knowledge of history--ancient history--in Sparta they encouraged homosexuality because they fight for the people they love, and if it's your partner and you love him, then you're prepared to die for him. It's the same ethic in the military today. It's not [about] the country--it's [about] my partner who's sharing my foxhole with me."

Intriguing, albeit a little weird, but that was just the beginning. Since then Gravel has said that if he was elected president, he would not only repeal "don't ask" but would issue an executive apology to all the gays and lesbians who were forced to serve in the closet under the policy. "People need to know that they've been wronged," Gravel says.

He is also unabashedly pro-marriage equality. After the New Hampshire debate in early June, where he wasn't quite as fiery--nor as effective--as in South Carolina, he told me that if he had been given the stage time, he would have said that civil unions aren't good enough. "I wanted to give the definition of marriage--marriage is nothing but a commitment of two human beings in love. I don't care if it's two women, two men, or a man and a woman--it's a commitment of love."

And on that note, Gravel even ventures to talk at length about gay love. "Love between a man and a woman is beautiful, love between a woman and a woman is beautiful, love between a man and a man is beautiful too," he said. "What this world needs is a lot more love."

Gravel's attitude and apparent sincerity are music to the ears of many gay Americans, especially younger ones. After a New York event held for Gravel by, 21-year-old Sophia Hoffman said it was "heartening" to hear a candidate who speaks about gay issues with such candor.

"In my weaker moments I get misty," Hoffman said, "but I don't know if I believe that someone who might run the country could say the things he's saying."

Point taken, but for LGBT people as well as other interest groups such as the antiwar movement, the question is not whether he can win but whether he can alter the debate.

The first of Gravel's two main platforms is ending the war in Iraq. He argues that the Congress and, most important, his presidential challengers Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, say they want to end the war but aren't using the full power of their positions to make that happen.

But unlike Dennis Kucinich--the candidate who probably has the most street cred among peace activists--Gravel isn't talking about impeaching anybody. That would take too long and, to be frank, is a bit too conventional for Mike Gravel, who is nothing if not inventive to the point of eccentric in his approach to legislating. Back in 1971, when President Nixon's Justice Department blocked TheNew York Times from reporting on a classified study about government deception in the Vietnam War, Senator Gravel put the study on public record by reading aloud about 4,000 pages of what came to be known as "The Pentagon Papers."

Gravel also pans the idea of voting to cut off funding for Iraq--a tactic he tried as the Senate cosponsor of a resolution to defund Vietnam that couldn't muster the votes.

Instead, he suggests Congress should pass a law that requires the president to bring home the troops, which he argues that Congress has the constitutional power to do. Strategically, it plays out like this: The Democrats have the votes in the House to pass the bill. In the Senate, majority leader Harry Reid would start forcing a vote on the bill once every day, over and over again, which would shine a spotlight on all the senators who were voting against it. With a little help from the media and antiwar activists, Gravel guesses it would take about 20 days for enough senators to feel the heat, cave in, and pass the bill. And after Bush exercises his veto power, you just run the whole drill again.

It's an impossibly pragmatic plan in that it forces elected officials to vote the will of the people by threatening them with the one thing they're not willing to risk--not getting reelected. But like many of Gravel's ideas, it barely stands a chance of gaining popular support even though it could produce what voters say they want.

Gravel knows how to work the system, and with little chance of winning, he can say almost anything, which should make for a deadly combination. Where he falls short is in making his concepts comprehensible to the average American.

Impeachment is an idea most Americans understand, however vaguely. Forcing a vote in the Senate every day until you reach cloture, then again until you override a veto and eventually pass a bill to create what Gravel calls a "constitutional crisis" between the president and Congress--now that's a tough sell, even to a middle-class American with a college degree.

The same thing could be said of his second platform, a pet project he's been cooking up for about 15 years called "The National Initiative," which would essentially allow average citizens to bypass Congress in order to put up their own proposals for popular vote. This particular initiative would require a real leap of faith for gays and lesbians because it would essentially allow the masses to vote on our rights.

One of the fundamental principles of our democracy is that it protects "the minority from the tyranny of the majority." The Constitution provides fundamental rights to individuals, and the framers deliberately devised a representative government rather than a direct democracy so that those rights wouldn't be subject to popular opinion.

But Gravel argues that, given the chance and the proper structure, the people would enact laws with more fair-mindedness and integrity than elected officials who are beholden to special interest groups.

"You have to trust the people," said Gravel, noting that Switzerland, one of the most harmonious and peaceful nations in the world, uses the system he's suggesting. "What distinguishes them is that they've brought the people into partnership with the government," he told the crowd at the Queerty event.

To his point, polls clearly show that a majority of Americans support allowing gays to serve openly in the military, protecting our rights in the workplace, and adding sexual orientation to federal hate-crimes legislation. In fact, those issues have polled well with a majority of Americans for several years, and elected officials are just now catching up. Gravel goes so far as to say that voters would legalize same-sex marriage by referendum--a stretch, according to the polls. Civil unions, maybe; marriage, probably not.

Nonetheless, the prospect of enacting the national initiative has left some LGBT crowds queasy. Though Gravel was well received by the Queerty contingent, his ideas were still a bit radical for some. One woman mumbled, "If he's elected, we're in trouble."

Gravel is nothing if not a believer. As his wife, Whitney, put it, "There are dreamers in life, and there are good administrators. He's a dreamer, and I think the only people who can change the world are dreamers."

To that end, Gravel, who is quite good-humored and warm in person, doesn't seem to mind that he's upsetting people as long as he's stirring things up. As he told the Queerty crowd while they cradled their drinks, "I don't mean to scare you, but this is how I talk when I'm sober."

One young questioner on YouTube asked whether it was a good thing that some people see the Rock as "disturbing."

"If looking at me and what I'm trying to convey in this election is disturbing, the answer is yes," answered Gravel. "When we stop and think of what it's costing in human life in this Iraq war, and the Democratic leadership and my colleagues running for president don't lift a finger to end it--that's disturbing, yes. That's what's in my eyes if you look very closely. I'm angry."

But it remains to be seen how much of a ripple effect Gravel's candidacy will really have.

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