Mike Gravel's Unitarian Universalism

Mike Gravel's Unitarian Universalism

Democratic presidential candidate identifies as a Unitarian Universalist; UUA support for publication of 'Pentagon Papers' an enduring bond.
Doug Muder


Maybe, as you have listened to the parade of spin and sound bites and talking points that is the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, you’ve had the same fantasy I’ve had: If a Unitarian Universalist ran for president, it wouldn’t be like this. A UU candidate would give straight answers instead of crafting statements that hint at much but say nothing definite. He or she would put forward big, bold ideas rather than pretend that a few innocuous tweaks will fix the system. And when that campaign started to take off, the other candidates would have to respond in kind. Everything would change.

Well, guess what? One candidate—Mike Gravel, the former senator from Alaska—is a UU. And his campaign resembles that fantasy. Sort of. Except maybe for the part about taking off and everything changing. Despite all the enthusiastic comments about Gravel you can find on the Internet, his poll numbers remain stuck somewhere between 1 percent and an asterisk. Kind of like Unitarian Universalism itself.

In another of my fantasies, I interview a presidential candidate one-on-one. It goes like this: A bouncer-sized guy with a black cord hanging out of his ear admits me to the executive suite of some expensive hotel, where clumps of people in suits are talking on Blackberries and typing on laptops. The candidate is sternly issuing commands until someone whispers into his/her ear and points at me. Suddenly the public face reboots, the one full of smiles and charm. We move to a slightly less busy corner, where two handlers hover over us like vultures, occasionally interrupting to rephrase my question or edit the candidate’s reply. It’s a fencing match: I jab to elicit something new; the candidate parries by repackaging statements from the website in a way that sounds responsive. Afterwards I comb the fifteen-minute tape until I find some nuance I can spin into a story.

Interviewing Mike Gravel is nothing like that. On the phone Elliott, the campaign manager, gives me a time and an address in an upscale but not ostentatious neighborhood of Manchester. It’s a house that belongs to one of Gravel’s old friends, and he stays there whenever he’s campaigning in New Hampshire. When I arrive, Gravel is sitting by himself in a small car in the driveway, trying to figure out why his phone says its mailbox is full even after he has deleted all its messages.

At 77, Gravel is spry but not fast. It takes a while to get out of the car and into the house. “I don’t ever want to retire,” he says. “I want to die with my boots on, and keep trying to make a significant contribution in life.” Inside, he introduces me to Elliott and to someone else working in a side room, then shuts the door on them and goes out to the kitchen to get us cans of Diet Coke. We settle in the living room and chat.

There is no fencing. He answers each question either directly or by launching into some relevant story. He never dodges, never consults an aide, and never promises to look something up and get back to me. At the hour-and-a-half mark, Elliott sticks his head into the living room and hints that I might be wearing the candidate out. It takes another fifteen minutes to wrap up. As I leave, Gravel is returning to the mystery of his cell phone.

Mike Gravel’s path to Unitarian Universalism resembles the spiritual journey of many UUs of his generation. His Roman Catholic family sent him to Catholic schools. His sister became a nun, but Gravel struggled with religion through adolescence and into adulthood. He remembers standing at the kitchen sink in an apartment he rented while he was finishing his degree at Columbia University and deciding that he could no longer be a Catholic. “I wasn’t angry about it, but when I made the decision, my God, I felt free, like a weight was off me.”

Gravel ran into Unitarianism after he moved to Alaska in 1956. (That same year, another Unitarian, Adlai Stevenson, received the Democratic Party’s nomination for president for the second time.) “When you go to Unitarians,” Gravel recalls, “you don’t get much religion, but you get a lot of humanism. And you get a lot of politics, too. And that turned me on.” Unitarian humanism resonated with conclusions he had come to on his own a long time before. “When I was sixteen, I decided that the human race comes first.”

Although Gravel describes himself as “not a joiner,” he joined what is now the Anchorage UU Fellowship. And although he says, “I don’t view Unitarianism as a religion,” during his 1968 Senate campaign he started telling reporters that his religion was Unitarianism. “Subsequently I found out that Thomas Jefferson was a Unitarian, and that really is me.”

Since he left Alaska his institutional connections with Unitarian Universalism have been sporadic. As a Senator he went to Sunday services when he was home, but not in Washington, D.C. (Jefferson did the opposite. He attended Joseph Priestley’s Unitarian Church when he was George Washington’s secretary of state and the national capital was in Philadelphia. At home he was “contented to be an Unitarian by myself.”) Gravel continues to identify with Unitarian Universalism, but does not currently belong to a UU church. “I’m the kind of guy who spends his Sunday mornings with The New York Times.”

The Pentagon Papers—which Gravel entered into the public record in 1971 and which the UUA’s Beacon Press published in the multi-volume “Senator Gravel edition”—cemented Gravel’s identification with Unitarian Universalism. “Nobody would touch it,” he says, “nobody but the Unitarians. So that really locked me in: I’m Unitarian, and I’m damn proud of it. They’ve got courage. I’m very loyal to the Unitarian Church for what they did.”

At the UUA General Assembly last June, Gravel appeared with Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, and the Rev. Robert West, the former UUA president who encouraged Beacon Press to publish them, for a 35-year Pentagon Papers retrospective. “You couldn’t have kept me away with wild horses,” Gravel says. (see below for links to UU World stories about the Pentagon Papers.)

Until you listen at length to one of the “fringe” presidential candidates like Gravel, his fellow Democrat Rep. Dennis Kucinich, or Republican Rep. Ron Paul, it is hard to appreciate the extent to which an unexamined conventional wisdom pervades the national conversation. In televised debates, the questions assume an implicit list of well-defined issues. Like power forwards waiting for a rebound, each party’s major candidates jostle to occupy the same favored positions. Any candidate with an unconventional message has to fight the format, give answers that sound like non sequiturs, and risk sounding wacky. (The conventional wisdom, by contrast, hardly ever sounds wacky, no matter how violent, destructive, or divorced from reality it might be.)

Rather than say, for example, how far he’d go to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons, Gravel challenges the question’s premise: “What’s wrong with Iran acquiring nuclear devices? We’ve got them. China’s got them. India’s got them. Anybody who’s afraid of us wants nuclear weapons.”

No debate moderator’s list of issues includes the central plank of Gravel’s platform: establishing a national initiative process, so that the voters can make laws directly. “Representative government is broken,” he claims, and he believes that the people will never take power back from special interests or dismantle the military-industrial complex until they become lawmakers. He has been working on his initiative proposal for two decades and claims to have fixed the problems that plague the various state initiative processes.

This issue pulled him back into politics after he lost his senate seat in 1980 and has pushed him into this presidential race. “A friend called me more than two years ago and said, ‘Gravel, if you want to live to see the National Initiative, you’ve got to do something unusual—run for president.’ And I said, ‘You’re a fool.’ But six months later I realized he was right.”

Gravel’s other major proposal, replacing the income tax with a consumption tax, comes up in Republican debates but not Democratic ones. To raise his issues in front of a national audience, Gravel has to shoehorn them context-free into discussions about something else. Sometimes he succeeds at this difficult maneuver, but when he fails he can sound like an old man who has woken up abruptly and is trying to continue the conversation from his dream.

In April The New York Times described him as “a kind of cranky uncle in the solemn field of well-barbered sound-bite practitioners.” Recently, debate organizers have been squeezing Gravel out entirely by restricting the field to candidates who have raised at least $1 million dollars.

The most engaging thing about Gravel is his complete refusal to stay on message, control the conversation, or otherwise play the game that politics has become. There is pride in his voice when he says: “I don’t act like a politician is supposed to act.”

Gravel has no money for TV advertising, but the most-watched Gravel video on YouTube is called Rock. In it, he stares wordlessly at the camera for a full minute, turns away to walk down a beach, throws a rock into the water, and then keeps walking until he’s out of sight. He describes his role in the video as being “a warm body.” The artistic vision came from the filmmakers, and Gravel went with it. He is so tickled to have been part of someone else’s creative process that he tells me not only about Rock, but about an animated parody in which the rock kills a duck rather than producing ripples that propagate symbolically off the screen.

He claims to be the first presidential candidate ever to address the Free Speech Coalition, a group representing the adult entertainment industry. When I list some of his impolitic statements—that Sen. Joe Lieberman’s support for war is “sick,” that General David Petraeus is “craven and venal,” and that our country (like Iran) is run by “a religious nut”—he doesn’t deny or qualify them. “They’re truthful,” he says simply.

Only one subject causes Gravel to stick to an improbable talking point: He is going to win the election and become president. He talks matter-of-factly about the generals he will inherit and how the National Initiative will help him accomplish things that Congress would never approve. I’m skeptical, but I decide to go along for the ride. “When you’re president,” I ask, “are you still going to say all those outrageous things?”

Just for a moment, his septuagenarian eyes twinkle like a naughty six-year-old’s. “Oh,” he promises, “you won’t believe the things I’m going to say.”

Disclosure: After filing this column, the author was invited to join Mike Gravel's slate of delegates from New Hampshire. —The editors (12.21.07)

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