Bwog correspondent Christopher Morris-Lent attends a Friendly Fire-Columbia Political Union-sponsored event and encounters a man who savors the taste of defeat .
On Friday afternoon, a ragtag group of people streamed into the hallowed space at the top of Earl Hall to see Mike Gravel, once a senator from Alaska and now running a quixotic campaign for president, speak on a variety of issues ranging from why he dislikes all politicians to what you can do about it. The audience, which ultimately numbered about 70 people and consisted of about ninety percent males and at least fifty percent policy wonks, grew steadily in size until Gravel arrived, accompanied by his speechwriter and History department lecturer, Dave Eisenbach.
Eisenbach is perhaps best known around campus as the founder of Friendly Fire, ostensibly a series of discussions targeted at deconstructing what he sees as Columbia’s “problem” with free speech and featuring vocal critics of the University (Jim Gilchrist, Karina Garcia, Bob Podhoretz) squaring off against one another in a debate-style format. Yesterday, however, he eschewed his typical role as the impartial moderator and assumed that of a salesman, delivering a rousing introduction on behalf of the man whom he once called “an American hero.”
“I first became fascinated with Mike when I was watching one of the presidential debates last year,” said Eisenbach, “and he asked Obama, ‘Tell me, Barack, who do you want to nuke?’ I knew I had to get this guy on Friendly Fire! Then one thing led to another,” he continued, by way of explanation, “and I had a job.”
Minutes later, Gravel himself took the floor to enthusiastic applause. “One of the most common questions people ask me,” he intoned, “is that, as manhandled by the media as I’ve been, why didn’t I write a book?” At this point, much of the audience directed its attention to the pamphlets distributed at the beginning of the event, which doubled as advertisements for Gravel’s new book Citizen Power and as catalogues of his accomplishments throughout the course of his political career: “As a United States senator,” one line read, “he filibustered for five months, forcing an end to the draft.” Another page listed part of Gravel’s platform, a notable example of which was, “Build a new national electrical power grid for a national and urban maglev transportation system using existing wind and solar technology.”
Gravel’s platform seemed to be a topic about which he was more than happy to speak, and, for the next forty-five minutes or so, that is exactly what he did, prompted by the occasional prompting question from Eisenbach. ï¿½What is making you do this?ï¿½ he asked rhetorically, the subtext being that Gravel is running a campaign on no money with little popular support or opportunity to influence leftward the discourses between the major candidates.
Gravel responded phlegmatically, ï¿½What else am I gonna do? Itï¿½s like the analogy I drew in my book ï¿½ throwing a rock in the water ï¿½ itï¿½s gonna produce ripples. Iï¿½m too old to play tennis now, and Iï¿½ve got a lot of chutzpah. All you young men: you owe me two years of your life,ï¿½ he continued, alluding to his fastidious opposition to the draft in his days as a senator before launching into a record of his congressional accomplishments.
ï¿½Thatï¿½s leadership!ï¿½ he said emphatically, before asking, ï¿½where have all the leaders gone? Have you seen the last Hillary ad? ï¿½We Americans can do this.ï¿½ What the hell does that mean? Obama is hardly better. Representative government is broken. What is the answer?ï¿½
The answer, at least according to Gravel, can be found at nationalinitiative.us. The National Initiative is Gravelï¿½s grand and overarching plan for fixing what he sees as the ingrained corruption and myopia present in Washington today. Essentially, it stipulates that legislative power be transferred from the Congress ï¿½ which is hopelessly far removed from the problems of everyday Americans and in the thralldom of special interests ï¿½ to the people. ï¿½There are twenty-four states with initiative power on the books today,ï¿½ declared Gravel, ï¿½and those states generally have better governance than the ones that donï¿½t.ï¿½
ï¿½Wonï¿½t this just lead to a tyranny of the majority?ï¿½ asked Eisenbach.
ï¿½Well, if youï¿½re not ruled by the majority, youï¿½re ruled by a minority,ï¿½ responded Gravel, waxing Rumsfeldian for a second. ï¿½The American people are ruled by a minority as is. The National Initiative is the answer for the future.ï¿½
But the National Initiative is far from the only plank in Gravelï¿½s platform. Throughout the rest of the afternoon, as the topic at hand modulated from gay marriage to John McCain to Iraq, Gravel offered a seemingly inexhaustible number of aphorisms for curing what ails America.
On gay rights and activism: ï¿½Get the hell out of the closet! Fight for your rights and win!ï¿½
On gay marriage: ï¿½I believe in marriage. If thereï¿½s anything we need, itï¿½s a lot more love.ï¿½
On federal jurisdiction thereof: ï¿½Hillary says that this is a matter of statesï¿½ rights. Well, thatï¿½s what John C. Calhoun said about slavery.ï¿½
On Hillary Clinton: ï¿½Sheï¿½s clearly more qualified than Obama to be president.ï¿½
On Barack Obama: ï¿½Initially he was like Hamlet ï¿½ thereï¿½s no ï¿½thereï¿½ there. Iï¿½m sure heï¿½s mesmerized many of you. ï¿½Thereï¿½s change. Thereï¿½s hope. Thereï¿½s change and thereï¿½s hope.ï¿½ï¿½
On John McCain: ï¿½Thereï¿½s no question ï¿½ John McCain is worse [than Barack or Hillary].ï¿½
On the impending apocalypse: ï¿½Weï¿½re in a war for the survival of the planet! Weï¿½re all going to be cooked in 100 years if we donï¿½t do anything. I can take us off of gasoline in five.ï¿½
On resilience: ï¿½Iï¿½m running all the way through November, as a Democrat until the convention, then as a third-party candidate.ï¿½
On why: ï¿½You need me as president worse than you realize.ï¿½
On his chances: ï¿½For me to become President of the United States, itï¿½d take an act of God.ï¿½
The time was nearing five oï¿½clock and the blue around Havemeyer deepening from turquoise to indigo. After Gravel finished his last genial and eloquent diatribe against the establishment, Eisenbach opened the floor to questions. Someone asked about McCain and his past; Gravel responded by fingering the draft dodgers as the true exemplars of ï¿½moral courageï¿½ in Vietnam, posited that McCain was ï¿½just following ordersï¿½ when he attacked the Vietnamese, and declared that ï¿½the same could be said of the Nazis at Auschwitzï¿½ before qualifying his position. ï¿½Those that fought in Vietnam were good Americans,ï¿½ he continued, ï¿½trying to do the best thing for their country.ï¿½ But if they failed, then what of the fate of the National Initiative?
For another half an hour Gravel laughed, convinced, and parried his way through the rhetorical thicket. It was him at his very finest, as he displayed the cocktail of uncompromising maverick liberalism and completely impractical ideas that make him a darling amongst idealistic collegiate bleeding hearts and a hopelessly unviable candidate amongst the electorate. I found myself agreeing with Gravel more than Iï¿½d care to admit; itï¿½s as if he were the raging leftist id inside all of us nominal liberals, untempered by compromise, practical considerations and reality. Ralph Nader once called Gravel ï¿½a breath of fresh air,ï¿½ and as unsettling as that fresh air was, at times, there was something rejuvenating about seeing someone speak his mind so freely and lucidly, as if he had nothing to lose but, say, one-tenth of one percent of the primary vote.