Who is Mr. Gravel?
That's the first question Rev. Kathleen Korb of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples asked when she heard he would like to speak at her church.
“I said he helped to declassify the Pentagon Papers and then she was interested,” said David Nelson-Vandette, Florida Director of the Gravel 2008 President campaign, of the top secret government papers regarding the Vietnam War published in the New York Times in 1971.
Korb welcomed former Alaskan Sen. Mike Gravel, a Unitarian, to talk to the Naples congregation Sunday during its Sunday forum.
Although he’s lowest in national polls and campaign fundraising, Gravel, 77, wants to become the Democratic nominee for president. Without time and money on his side, Gravel's campaign has been largely held on the Internet through You Tube and grass-roots efforts frequently utilizing public transportation to speaking engagements and debates. Gravel told his story Sunday, including his failed attempt to beat then-U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond's 1957 record for the longest filibuster, which was over 24 hours of non-stop talking on the Senate floor.
Gravel said he went to the doctor to be equipped with a colostomy bag because he would not be able to go to the bathroom in the middle of reading the papers without losing the right to keep speaking.
"Democracy is very physical," Gravel said smiling before a crowd of 200 people at the church.
Gravel said he set the precedence for any member of Congress to release the Pentagon Papers to the public as a matter of conscience; however, that power has not been used since 1971. Gravel entered 4,100 of the 7,000 Pentagon Papers pages into the record of his congressional subcommittee, portions of which were subsequently published by Beacon Press, the publishing arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations
"The fact that government leaks like a sieve is what keeps it together," he said.
Gravel drew a parallel between the Vietnam War and the Iraq war, saying that both wars were unsuccessful because they were fought on a fraudulent basis.
"There is information today on Iraq that needs to go into public record,” he said. “Eighty percent of what is held secret should not be."
After speaking about his role in the Pentagon Papers, the forum opened to public questions.
Gravel's primary reason for running for president, he said, was to empower the American people through a more direct democracy.
"You are more intelligent than your leaders,” he said. “You do a better job keeping this country moral. What I'm really advocating is change to empower all of you."
Roger Brown, the congregation president, asked Gravel how he was any different.
"We heard about change in the last election," Brown said.
Gravel replied that it was another example of why a representative government doesn't work.
"The first thing you think when making a decision on public policy is, 'How is this going to effect my position?' We all operate that way. Then you think 'How does this affect the people who gave me money to get here?’ Then, 'How does this affect my party?’ Finally, you think, 'How does this affect the public?’ It’s the structure."
Gravel said most people he knows who go into public service are idealists; however out of necessity of keeping their jobs they abuse power and their initial call for major change becomes a lie.
After the forum, Brown said he respected hearing the truth.
Gravel’s most viewed and commented video on You Tube is one in which he throws a large rock into a pond creating ripples in the water and then walks away quietly. It's a metaphor he says of the video made by two college students.
Gravel’s largest obstacle in making political waves will be raising enough funds to make it through the presidential primary. His goal is to get public financing through matching funds. He has qualified in the state of Florida and has 12 of the necessary 20 states, he said.
“I'm doing the best I can. I'm putting one foot in front of the other,” Gravel said.
He then rushed off to Coral Gables with only three hours to spare before another debate with the other Democratic candidates to be aired on the Spanish-speaking Univision TV station.