He made headlines by fighting for an oil pipeline and reading the Pentagon Papers aloud. After 25 years of obscurity, he re-emerged with a quixotic presidential campaign.
By Adam Clymer at the New York Times
Mike Gravel, a two-term Democratic senator from Alaska who played a central role in 1970s legislation to build the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline but who was perhaps better known as an unabashed attention-getter, in one case reading the Pentagon Papers aloud at a hearing at a time when newspapers were barred from publishing them and later mounting long-shot presidential runs, died on Saturday at his home in Seaside, Calif. He was 91.
The cause was myeloma, his daughter, Lynne Mosier, said.
Defeated in his bid for a third Senate term in 1980, Mr. Gravel remained out of the national spotlight for 25 years before returning to politics to seek the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. He was a quirky fixture in several early debates in 2007, calling for a constitutional amendment to allow citizens to enact laws by referendums. But when the voting began in 2008, he never got 1 percent of the total in any primary.
He nonetheless persisted, showing the same commitment to going it alone that he had displayed by nominating himself for vice president in 1972, staging one-man filibusters and reading the Pentagon Papers aloud — efforts that even senators who agreed with him regarded as grandstanding.
But the pipeline was a lasting achievement, and one that forced him to develop allies. Senator Gravel (pronounced gruh-VELL), like most of his state’s leaders, favored construction of a pipeline to bring crude oil 800 miles from Alaska’s North Slope to the ice-free port of Valdez.
But the project, formally proposed in 1969, was slowed or blocked in federal courts over environmental questions.
Mr. Gravel seized the issue in 1973 by proposing legislation that would exempt the project from any further court intervention under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Other pipeline supporters — including his Republican fellow Alaska senator, Ted Stevens — were wary because the environmental law was a proud accomplishment of Senator Henry M. Jackson of Washington, the chairman of the Interior Committee, which dealt with many Alaska issues.
Senator Jackson favored the pipeline and said he believed that a thorough review would show that it could be built without damage to the environment. But he insisted that breaching the environmental act would be an “unfortunate precedent.”
The Nixon administration backed Mr. Gravel and his call for swift action. His measure won, 50 to 49, with Vice President Spiro T. Agnew casting the deciding vote. The House quickly agreed, and the pipeline, which opened in 1977, made oil the center of Alaska’s prosperity.
Mr. Gravel drew much more national notice on June 29, 1971. The New York Times and other newspapers were under court injunctions to stop publishing the Pentagon Papers, a secret, detailed government study of the war in Vietnam.
He read aloud from the papers to a subcommittee hearing that he had quickly called after Republicans thwarted his effort to read them to the entire Senate. He read for about three hours, finally breaking down in tears and saying, “Arms are being severed, metal is crashing through human bodies — because of a public policy this government and all of its branches continue to support.” (In a major ruling on press freedom, the injunction against The Times was overturned by the Supreme Court the next day.)
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