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Senator Mike Gravel, 1930-2021

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Mike Gravel by Gage Skidmore.
Mike Gravel by Gage Skidmore.
(Image by Wikipedia (, Author: Gage Skidmore)
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Senator Mike Gravel founder, namesake, and chairman emeritus of the Gravel Institute passed away on June 26 at age 91.

David Oks notes that he "passed away peacefully, at his home in California, surrounded by family. He died a very happy man," and offered these memories:

I knew Mike only in the last few years of his lifefirst helping on his presidential campaign, then helping on the Institute that bears his namebut he was, without a doubt, the greatest person I'd ever met. No one I know was like him. There was fundamentally something about Mike that set him apart from others. I think the best term for him is "magnanimous": great of soul, great of mind, great of heart.

One is reminded of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics: the great-souled man, Aristotle said, was "open both in love and in hate, since concealment shows timidity"; he is one who "cares more for the truth than for what people will think"; one who "speaks and acts openly." The great-souled man, according to the philosopher (here I am quoting from the Loeb translation),

does not run into danger for trifling reasons, and is not a lover of danger, because there are few things he values; but he will face danger in a great cause, and when so doing will be ready to sacrifice his life, since he holds that life is not worth having at every price.

What could better describe Mike? No one I have known had such a surplus of will, of gusto and zest, gallantry and courage. No one I have known had lived so full and grand a life, a life so full of contradictions (as all great lives are) and yet so unified, so complete.

Mike was born in 1930, to French-Canadian immigrant parents, and did not learn to speak English until he was seven years old. A working-class boy growing up in the Great Depression, Mike struggled in school due in part to an undiagnosed case of dyslexia. He paid his way through high school by working as a janitor, and while in high school was given personal attention by an English teacher who tutored him in public speaking. His language skills improved, matching a personality already considered charming and irrepressible by his classmates.

After high school, Mike enlisted in the U.S. Army in Europe in order to avoid being drafted into the Korean War; the Army used his ability to speak French to surveil Communist rallies. He disliked spying on innocents"I felt rotten doing it," he would later writeand soon returned to the U.S., where he enrolled at Columbia University. He paid his bills by working as a taxi driver, and lived in a garbage room he converted into studio apartment.

After graduating from Columbia (he once told us a story about graduating and then immediately going back to work his cab, still wearing graduation garb), Mike decided to relocate to pre-statehood Alaska, since Massachusetts was too rife with Kennedys for any political career to succeed there. He worked as a brakeman on the Alaska Railroad, and then in real estate. Soon he entered politics and rose rapidly as Alaska became a state, becoming a state legislator and then Speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives. As a state legislator, Mike authored the law creating the state's regional high school system (and thus allowing Alaska Natives to attend schools closer to where they lived), and was a leading proponent of settling Alaska Natives' land claims.

In 1968, just 12 years after moving to Alaska, Mike ran for U.S. Senate. A biographical film called Man for Alaska, and strong support from Alaska Native communities (he flew from remote community to remote community, showing the film wherever he went), powered him to victory in the Democratic primary. During his years in the Senate, Mike befriended, worked with, or (most often) fought the leading figures of his timefrom Frank Sinatra to Ted Kennedy to Richard Nixonand gained a reputation as an unorthodox maverick.

But Mike still managed to accomplish much more than most politicians will in their lifetimes. He led the Senate in confronting the environmental consequences of nuclear weapons testing, and organized worldwide opposition to atomic bomb tests under the seabed of Alaska's Amchitka Island, was an early advocate of normalizing relations with China, sponsored one of the first bills proposing a guaranteed minimum income, and worked to make amends for America's colonial legacy during the drafting of a new Panama Canal treaty.

But the central episode of his political life came in 1971, with the saga of the Pentagon Papers. When court injunctions were halting the Papers' publication in newspapers, Daniel Ellsberg turned to members of Congress to read them into the Congressional Record and ensure they were publicly available. George McGovern said no; so did William Fulbright and Pete McCloskey. Mike was the only person to say yes.

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Meryl Ann Butler is an artist, author, educator and OpedNews Managing Editor who has been actively engaged in utilizing the arts as stepping-stones toward joy-filled wellbeing since she was a hippie. She began writing for OpEdNews in Feb, 2004. She became a Senior Editor in August 2012 and Managing Editor in January, (more...)

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