WASHINGTON – He's been a cab driver,real estate developer and U.S. senator,but Mike Gravel is campaigning for his most ambitious job to date – president of the United States.
The former Democratic senator from Alaska announced his candidacy at a press conference Monday. He spoke passionately before an audience of family,friends and several TV cameras about his campaign platform: direct democracy and ending the Iraq War.
Even though his two children and four grandchildren weren't there,signs written in crayon adorned either side of his podium: “Vote for Grandpa Mike.” His necktie was decorated with U.S. flags and patterned after the Declaration of Independence.
His campaign treasurer said this is the earliest a serious presidential hopeful has filed papers with the Federal Election Commission. Gravel said he needs the early start to offset his challenges,including his age – he's 75 – and his meager campaign fund.
The self-proclaimed workaholic said he has “no desire to retire,” and pointed out that many world leaders got a late start in life. He decided to run for president a year ago,to try to correct what he says are flaws in the current system.
Gravel will hit the fundraising trail starting in two weeks,with planned visits to Iowa,New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Gravel joked that he and his wife,Whitney,rode the subway to the news conference from their Arlington,Va.,home,using that as evidence of his lack of funds.
But he's no stranger to the political ring. Gravel represented Alaska from 1969 to 1981 during the last years of the Vietnam War,and conducted a one-man filibuster leading to the end of the draft. He entered the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record,making them public. Parts of the secret papers had been printed in the New York Times and the Washington Post,but they weren't otherwise available.
Gravel,who said he has dyslexia but makes up for it with his ability to think on his feet, revisited his dedication to a transparent and more democratic government. He said he plans to reform the country's democratic system by giving people more power to make laws and appropriate money through ballot initiatives.
“Our three branches of government have become like an unstable chair with only three legs,” he said. “Giving American citizens legislative power will put the fourth leg on our chair,making it stable.”
During the Q and A session,he often began statements with,“When I am president …”
He said he will fight terrorism by forming a global committee. The audience laughed at his tongue-in-cheek plan to send Steven Spielberg as a special ambassador to talk with North Korea's leader,Kim Jong-Il,who is said to love American movies.
“When you're talking,you're not fighting,” he said.
He was also hard on President Bush and the war,saying,“President Bush's mistake is not worth the life or maiming of one more American soldier.”
Danny Diaz,spokesman for the Republican Party,said the GOP is focused on the 2006 congressional midterm elections,rather than presidential candidates.
“We're making sure the Republicans maintain their majorities in Washington,D.C.,” he said. “The first primary in the '08 presidential election is the '06 midterm elections.”
Even though Gravel admits he has worthy Democratic opponents in Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton,of New York,and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts,and Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean,he said,“I think I can beat them all,because I don't think they understand the people.”
No one from Democratic Party headquarters responded to messages left there.
PoliticalMoneyline,a non-partisan group that tracks political campaign donations,lists 28 “possible presidential contenders,” 15 Democrats and 13 Republicans. Gravel is not among them.
Gravel said he had a “modest” childhood as the son of two French-Canadian immigrants.
He worked many jobs,including New York City cab driver and brakeman for the Alaska railroad. He said his most humbling experience was returning as a U.S. Army officer from post-war West Germany in 1954 with nothing. He took a job hauling crates of liquor at the Taft Hotel in New York City.