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Interview with Mike Gravel: His Priorities in Running for President

“So Buttegieg, in what that reveals of him, is that he’s a classic puppet of the military industrial complex.”

After campaigning for the 2008 Democratic primary, Mike Gravel, at age 89, is making a comeback to public life and running for president again in 2020. The former Alaska senator is nationally known for his anti-war efforts, including attempting to end the draft during the Vietnam War and taking personal risks to enter the Pentagon Papers into the official Congressional Record. His 2020 campaign continues to speak out against many of the United States’ current foreign policies and proposes to end unilateral sanctions against other countries, specifically Venezuela, and significantly cut military spending. In this interview, Gravel joins Merion West’s editor Erich Prince and shares his views on whistleblowing and Julian Assange, corporate money in politics, and direct democracy, which his upcoming book will outline more in detail.

You’ve been very vocal all the way back to your time in the Senate with The Pentagon Papers to today on the role of whistleblowers. We just had indictments coming in for Julian Assange. Your staff, via Twitter, had some comments on this. What are your initial reactions with these indictments rolling in on Assange?

It’s horrible. It’s horrible. It’s the worst practices that could be done by our government. Julian clearly is a legitimate publisher, and he’s done no different than what The New York Times and The Washington Post have done in the past, except that he’s done it with greater volume than they have. It not only provides a chill on a publication that would challenge government power, but what it does is it turns around and discourages whistleblowing. Of course, whistleblowing is vital to our democracy because the excesses we have in secrecy in the operation of government, in the executive, legislative, and judicial, is just appalling. As James Madison said, “When you have continuous war, you lose your democracy,”and that’s, of course, what’s going on in our society today.

In December 2010, Vice President Joe Biden called Assange “a high-tech terrorist.” How have you felt the mainstream Democratic establishment has treated whistleblowers, especially during the Obama years?

I didn’t know that Joe Biden made that statement. It’s extreme. Of course, it really shows that Joe, as a nice guy, is still a puppet of the Military-Industrial Complex. That’s what his statement reveals: that he’s the puppet, and the puppeteers are Wall Street and the Military-Industrial Complex. So here, I just fully disagree, and I think it would be a tragedy to go ahead. What that shows also is an attitude within the Democratic Party—and more so in the Republican Party—that it is, “My country, right or wrong.” That, in my mind, is the height of immorality. If your country is wrong, you should try to correct it and not just continue to praise it. Same thing with, “My party, right or wrong.” And they want everyone to take a pledge that if you are going to take a pledge that you are going to support the nominee. If Joe Biden is the candidate of the Democratic party, there’s no way that I would support him. Period.

Mairead Maguire, the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, nominated Julian Assange for the Nobel Peace Prize. Would you go that far?

Oh yes. There’s no question. Now, Julian has made some tactical errors. But Snowden, Julian, and Chelsea Manning, are all deserving of Nobel Peace Prizes because they put their career on the line to be able to tell the truth about what the government is doing and making errors around the world, which cost human life.

I want to talk about corporate money in politics. The number one recipient for oil and gas money in the 2018 election cycle was Ted Cruz and number two—a lot of Americans are pretty surprised to hear—was Beto O’Rourke. What does that tell you about American politics? Are the corporations stacking both sides of Congress?

There’s no question that they do. They always have been, except that they give a little more to the Republican side. But they have always been giving to both sides. They are just playing it safe. They are demonstrating, essentially, an amoral attitude towards human government. You just buy these representatives by the pound with your contributions; that’s, of course, the reason why I’m such an advocate of bringing in the people into the operation of government as law makers. Because until you do that, the elites will continue to control our society and our government. The reason why they can do that is because it was the elites who wrote the Constitution and set it up so it would continue to be a vehicle for elites to keep control of the government and the structure of governance.

I know you’ve been fairly vocal on direct democracy in the past. But some people on the Left have been concerned about certain results of more direct forms of democracy like the Brexit vote for example. Could some forms of direct democracy result in policies that aren’t as helpful to objectives favored by progressives?

Well, no. Brexit is a classic example of a non-direct democracy. Notice what they did is Cameron turned around and put before the people, the decision of whether to stay in the Union or get out. Now, there were no additional studies, no additional information to the electorate, and this is a very complex process. They didn’t have the benefit of any of that. All you had were the crazies shouting from the rooftops that, “We want to get out” or “We should stay in.” It’s sort of just bifurcated down the middle. That’s anarchy. I’m not talking about the initiative process that we see in 23 or 24 states.

I’m talking about a process where people are articulating their rights in creating an amendment to the Constitution—and two, have a Federal Act that sets up these legislative procedures. Because to empower the people to make laws without setting up a legislative procedure process, you create anarchy. Every legislative body that I know of has procedures that guarantee that there’s at least some modicum of study or information-gathering. What you do have is that you have hearings, you have markups, you have public debates. This can all be structured. I would structure this to be in the legislature of the people, far better than anything I’ve ever seen in any representative government.

Would you favor something along the lines of what’s gotten a lot of attention with the Australian elections in recent weeks: mandatory voting? 

No. My wife and I, ten years ago, were having breakfast with Helen Caldicott in New York, and I was trying to persuade her on a legislature of the people, but she says, “Well, we in Australia, we have mandatory voting.” I said, “Wow, that’s interesting. Is your government any better than ours?” Of course, that brought her up short because that’s it’s not. Voting is a process whereby citizens who vote are voting to transfer their power to representative government who then have a monopoly on lawmaking. That’s what voting is. We’re misled into thinking, “Well, this is the exercise of sovereignty.” Hell,  it’s not the exercise of sovereignty; lawmaking is the exercise of sovereignty!

Laws are the core, the center of civilization, the center of government. We see the vote is suppressed and manipulated. Politicians tell you what you want to hear, not what they’re going to do. Of course, they have to raise money, so they raise money from the elites, who control society. And the people just vote and then turn around and protest and beg for the elected officials to do something, and, of course, it doesn’t happen. That’s the dysfunction of representative government. That’s the failure of representative government. I’ll have a book out in about two to three months that will outline how that can be corrected. It’s a manual to bring about the enactment of the legislature of the people and the procedures for the ongoing legislative processes of the people.

I’ll look forward to reading that when it comes out. Going back to O’Rourke for a second. Generally, when a lot of American people are confronted with this information, they’re fairly surprised. Prior to our conversation, I just went through Google, and I looked at reporting on O’Rourke being the second biggest recipient of this oil and gas money. A few interest groups had published it widely, as well as a Bloomberg piece, and it was referenced in an Atlantic article. Is there an aspect of maybe media, or maybe corporate media, why this isn’t a major headline? 

Yes. There’s a reason. Corporations control our mainstream media lock, stock, and barrel. Now, what you have to understand with O’Rourke is that he’s covering his bets. He’s not going to be ascribing his agenda that’s going to go contrary to what’s possible in the state of Texas. He’s going to try to be President, and I doubt he’ll make it. But what he wants to do [if that doesn’t work out] is run for office and wants to be viable within the context of the politics of Texas. And being for oil and gas is a good position for anybody who wants to win in Texas, of late. Now I can recall Ralph Yarborough, who served with me in the Senate, and he eschewed oil and gas money and still got elected and was very much a liberal. O’Rourke is just covering his backside in that regard. 

I want to ask about these alleged divisions within the Democratic Party, between those that take corporate PAC money and those who don’t. Vox had a story in March suggesting, “Some Democrats who took no corporate PAC pledge are already getting pressured to ditch that promise.” The story quotes Susan Wild, whom I’ve interviewed a couple of times and who campaigned on no corporate PAC money. She’s quoted in this story as saying that there’s pressure, “mostly from members who’ve been here a long time, a few who have been very dismissive and said ‘You’re going to have to get rid of that.’” Basically saying “You know what, you campaigned on no corporate PAC money, but it’s time to get with the program and take it.” What do you make of that alleged division between people like Susan Wild, Andy Kim, recently elected in 2018, on a no corporate PAC money platform and now potentially getting some pushback on that from leadership?

Well, the leadership is wrong in that regard. If you really want to represent the people, you have to get in the trenches with the people, and you do that by supporting and surviving on the support of the people. Now, that raises the question, “Well, can money overrule in the electoral process?” And it can. But also what is significant is that when you head a constituency that understands the issues because the leaders have made the effort going door to door—I first got elected to office without money, going door to door, buttonholing people on issues that I felt were important 50 years ago.

The flipside of that is that there are a lot of organizations that are liberal and progressive organizations that raise money and help candidates. So, is that enough to overcome the corporate monies that are made possible through the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United? I think it’s possible. But you have to commit yourself. Now the Democrats are split where they say, “We have to take some of this money…” It’s not some. They take a lot. Corporations are happy to do it until you get a situation like what occurred under Obama, which is what the Obama healthcare plan was, which is basically a subsidy to the insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry. The legislation is watered down from the get go. I would say if there’s ever a chance to make this point of eschewing bad corporate monies, it should be bad corporate monies. But there are good corporate monies because a lot of these progressive organizations are not just non-profit, but they’re for profit.

So, there is sometimes good corporate PAC money in your mind—not all corporate PAC money is bad?

Of course there is. That’s what Ocasio-Cortez was saying when she revolted and said, “Don’t give the money to the House Campaign committee” because they’re going to spread that out to some of the people that shouldn’t be here. She was recommending that they give the money directly to the individuals. And that’s exactly the case. They will spread this money out to the people who’ve been there too long, who should be long gone. We’re talking about Blue Dog Democrats. We’re talking about people that have a bad voting record. What we need to do is clean that up. But that’s on the representative government side. This could be improved substantially if we had the people, as lawmakers, making laws because they could reverse Citizens United. Also, they could do what they do in Europe and have short periods of time for elections. You don’t have to raise all of this crazy money to be able to pay and get rich from. Of course, mainstream media just loves this stuff because then they’re the ones that you spend money on for your candidacy. So you’re raising money from corporate interests and you spend it with corporate interests, and people get behind those.

So I know you’ve obviously been very critical of the Trump administration. Is there anything President Trump’s doing, whether it’s reexamining lobbying bans or on the campaign trail where he’s talked about giving money to both sides to represent his interests—is there anything helpful that President Trump has done, whether it was as a candidate or in office that has been helpful to some of these priorities that progressives might favor?

Well, I would say that old saying: that even a broken clock has the right time twice a day. We live in very interesting times. I just hope that the people get angry enough that they will look outside of the box for the solution, which of course, is what I offer. Because the Democrats, even if they won the Presidency—even if Bernie became President and his Vice President is Tulsi Gabbard, which is my choice—he would not be able to enact his agenda. And it a simple reason; I doubt the Senate Democrats will be able to pick up 12 or 13 seats in the Senate, and absent that, Mitch McConnell would be able to thwart any kind of legislation because they would be able to filibuster.

So Senator, is it even the Democrats in general or is it just a specific type of Democrats? For example, we just had these budgets, which are sending the Pentagon $37 billion more than President Trump himself even asked for, and I believe only four Democrats voted against it. So is it Democrats or is it just a specific type of progressive Democrats that would help a President Sanders enact that agenda? Would a few more seats of any kind of Democrats to fill these seats accomplish these goals that you and Tulsi Gabbard favor?

No. Because what you see out there is nobody talking about reigning in the Military-Industrial Complex. I have not heard that statement from any candidate, other than Tulsi and some degree, Bernie, and myself. I have not seen any other candidates say that. So what that means is that if they are elected, like Obama got elected or Bush got elected; they’re all puppets of the Military-Industrial Complex. Period. That’s the tragedy. If we have a good progressive agenda, I doubt it can be passed without the people as lawmakers. But what we’re talking about in respect to the Military-Industrial Complex is that these people are voting for continuous wars. That’s what the Military-Industrial Complex does, and the Pentagon makes pigs of themselves, and then the Congress throws more money at them than they even ask for.

I’ve seen reports from The Intercept, for example, that the Pentagon has more money than they know what to do with. But maybe they do know what to do with it?

Well they sure do; they sure do. Let me give you an example. Right now, this started under Obama. We in Congress have authorized $1.7 trillion to refurbish our nuclear arsenal. Now, of course if you know the cost overruns the records of Congress, what you know of the Pentagon, is you know we’re talking $3+ trillion to refurbish our nuclear arsenal. Of course, we have this triad system, where the Air Force has nukes, the Army has nukes, and the Navy has nukes. One submarine, and we have twelve of them—tridents—has 280 warheads that it can send out, and there aren’t that many targets in the world that one submarine can hold the world hostage. What this becomes is the mother of boondoggles, because the weapons that exist now are not usable. There’s nine countries that have nukes, and if any one of them were to accidentally or on purpose were to unleash them, you wouldn’t need any retaliation because we’re going to trigger a nuclear winter and we’re all going to die. This is what the leadership of our country, in the Congress and the Pentagon and its military are working on: developing a suicide pact for the planet with this money.

So why do you think so many Democrats let Obama get away with this, if this happened as much under the Obama years as the Bush years?

Well, because mainstream media would not cover any opposition to that. Tulsi Gabbard got into a brouhaha with Obama. She had the courage to take him on. So what happened is mainstream media probably covered a little bit of it. Then that was the end of it. Of course, she’s very authoritative in that regard. She’s got six years on the armed services committee and six years on the  foreign relations committee. So, she really knows what’s going on on the inside. So she’s prepared to articulate that. But she’s the horror of the Military-Industrial Complex. So since Military-Industrial Complex controls the mainstream media, how do you think she’s going to do in mainstream media? She’s the only one, basically, who is out there talking about reigning in the Military-Industrial Complex. That alone will cause her to have a lot more long distance tracking of the presidency.

Second to last question Senator. This comes from a radio show host and educator here in Philadelphia, where we are located, Jamison Maley. He asks: “What is your advice to progressives who feel like the Democratic Party is unreformable, and the only option is to form a third party, which would bring us closer to the multiparty system found in European democracies? This being in contrast with progressives who think that the party is reformable, like Justice Democrats and Ocasio-Cortez who think they can get Pelosi and Schumer to change and abandon these money interests?”

First of all, the reformable part is laudatory, but it’s not a party deal. The Republicans have gone like lemmings off the cliff. Unbelievable. But the Democrats leave a great deal to be desired. The answer is not the party system. The answer is the structure of representative government, wherein the parties become a vehicle for activity, but that’s what’s at fault. It’s in the Constitution. There’s no mention in the Constitution about parties. What there is, is the structure of representative government, which is designed to mislead the people into thinking that they are sovereigns, when they’re not. All they’re able to do is vote, and the vote is really not the answer. What is the answer is to restructure the representative government, so that it doesn’t have a monopoly of lawmaking; and you bring the people independent of representative government to become lawmakers. That’s the answer. I can’t wait to get my book in the hands of progressives and point out to them that they’re not going to get their agenda passed. What will happen—as we see what happens with the various movements that the people get out there and protest—and protests are proof that democracy doesn’t work. It proves that the monopoly is held in the hands of the elites, who control representative government. So I hope that in their frustrations, they’ll read the book which is going to be less than 75 pages, so they can sit and read it. It’s the manual. It’s a manual to enact the legislature of the people and for the operation of the legislature when it’s in place.

What do you make of the criticisms that a truly progressive left is concerned with alleviating material conditions like increasing the standard of living and such, instead of identity politics? What do you make of that criticism of the Left today?

What’s happened is that the wedge issues Republicans use to try and unseat Democrats is a definite tactic. Now how is abortion, which is going to be a major issue or one of the major issues in 2020—how is that going to play out? I think it will motivate women to get out and vote. I think it could operate against the crazies that are now passing crazy legislation, hoping to get the Supreme Court on record on Roe v. Wade. This is all in the context of representative government. I keep harping, and one of the chapters in my book is a whole chapter on the failure of representative government. Just the fact that we are an empire at war is a failure.

What’s more of a failure than that in respect to our government? What’s the greatest threat to life on this planet? You have to say it’s the United States. We turned around and invaded Iraq. We are visiting Venezuela with sanctions. Who the hell are we to sanction Venezuela? And causing 40,000 plus deaths of children. Or when Clinton was President. 500,000 children were dying, and Madeleine Albright responded with “Well, that’s unfortunate, but it’s collateral damage.” It’s not collateral damage. It’s murder wholesale.

Just to clarify my question, there are some voices on the Left that say that certain  other Democrats are too focused on issues like transgender issues, ethnicity, and such. These more identity-motivated voters are saying, “I’m progressive because I support identity social issue X, Y, and Z.” And the response of their critics is, “Fair enough. But the essence of the Left is focused on material conditions, like reducing poverty, increasing the standard of living, and a true Left is focused on economic priorities first and foremost.” I am wondering if you could weigh in on that.

First of all, I think what we have to go after is economic issues because when you talk about freedom and civil rights, what have you—if you got no money, you have no civil rights. One of the unique situations in global history is that China has moved 600 million people from poverty to the middle class. It takes your breath away when you focus on that as an improvement in civil rights and human rights and economic stability. Now when you’re talking about the other aspect of this—identity politics, I think of Pete Buttegieg. Now what I’ve heard is that he’s questioned Obama commuting the sentence for Chelsea Manning for what she did in whistle blowing. Well, if that’s accurate, shame on him. Because when she was first arrested, they made a big deal over the fact that she’s unstable because she is in a transgender situation. So Buttegieg, in what that reveals of him, is that he’s a classic puppet of the Military-Industrial Complex. He’s been in the service. Chelsea Manning has been in the service; she was a corporal. He was a captain. She understood the constitutional effect on our military better than Buttegieg ever thought. He’s extremely smart, but on issues, he’s a bit of an empty suit

Thank you, Senator Gravel. I appreciate your time today.

Thank you.

Erich J. Prince is the editor at Merion West. Erich has contributed to a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Hill. His opinion writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress.

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