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A Political Odyssey Paperback – July 1, 2008
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About the Author
MIKE GRAVEL is most prominently known for releasing the Pentagon Papers—the secret official study revealing the manipulations of successive US administrations that misled the country into the Vietnam War. In 1971, he waged a successful one-man filibuster for five months that forced the Nixon administration to cut a deal, effectively ending the draft in the United States. His publications include The Senator Gravel Edition: The Pentagon Papers, Jobs and More Jobs, and Citizen Power.
JOE LAURIA is a New York–based journalist. He has covered foreign policy at the United Nations for nearly two decades for numerous newspapers, including the Boston Globe, the Montreal Gazette, and the Johannesburg Star. His articles have also appeared in the Sunday Times of London as part of its investigative unit, the New York Times, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, and the Huffington Post, among other publications.
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Tuesday, August 5, 2008
GREENYA: Righteous anger
You have to admire a man who can stay mad for almost four decades. No matter how dedicated and fired up most of us may be initially, we cop out, wear out or burn out long before that. Not former Democratic Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, again this year, long-long-shot presidential candidate. Mr. Gravel gets mad, usually for good reason, and then, eschewing the conventional wisdom, never gets over it. You gotta like the guy, and thanks to his able co-author, Joe Lauria, you gotta like his book.
What made Mr. Gravel mad back in 1971 was the arrogance of power, especially as wielded by democratically elected leaders to favor the defense industry over the common good. "The separate histories of my life and American militarism collided in 1968, when I arrived in the Senate at the age of thirty-eight," he writes. "My fight against militarism turned into a personal battle with Scoop Jackson, the senator who personified the military-industrial power even more than I personified its opposition."
In the Senate, Mr. Gravel was never a go-along-to-get-along kind of guy, displaying an independent streak right from the start. Eventually, he was a major thorn not just in the side of other senators, but also in that of the president of the United States, Richard Nixon, whom he infuriated by reading into the public record 4,100 of the 7,100 pages of the Pentagon Papers. By publishing the Pentagon Papers, Mr. Gravel cast a very large and ominous die that didn't stop until the war in Vietnam came to its ignoble end.
"A Political Odyssey" lays out Mr. Gravel's thesis that, far more often than not, our leaders have used fear - of the British, the Indians, the Communists, the radical Islamic terrorists - to justify ever larger outlays for defense, whether we happen to be at war or not. During his time on the national stage, however, Mr. Gravel's main causes were the war in Vietnam and nuclear testing. But after fighting those battles throughout the 1970s, he was "swept out of office when Reagan and resurgent militarism were swept in. I sank into a long political and personal despair, only to start climbing out of it in the '90s, seeking ways to reform the political system."
Mr. Gravel's main reforms are direct democracy, the national initiative and the flat tax. Before you groan, stop and think what a transformation these ideas would produce in this country. (Better yet, read this book, because it is filled with information and insight.) As a prime example of the workability of the first of his ideas, Mr. Gravel cites Switzerland: "In 168 years of direct democracy, the Swiss have built the most peaceful and prosperous nation in Europe. The United States would become unrecognizable, if the people would have this same power."
There are several other good reasons to read this book. One is that it's very well-written (Mr. Gravel's collaborator, Mr. Lauria, is an experienced New York-based journalist whose specialty is foreign affairs). Another is that it's refreshingly candid. He says that Republican Sen. William Saxbe of Ohio "really loathed me," Jimmy Carter was "more Stevenson than Eisenhower," Bill Clinton "was the first president since FDR who did not feel obliged to scare that hell out of people to pump up profits and power," and he describes the late Rev. Jerry Falwell as "the extreme-right political operative masquerading as a preacher."
It's difficult to sustain anger, even righteous anger, for almost 100,000 words, and yet Mr. Gravel manages to do it without sounding shrill, probably because he doesn't take himself anywhere near as seriously as he takes the issues.
By the end, the tone is, to my ear, just right, as when he tells us, "History is irrational. Powerful people think they can control it. They are fools. The lawlessness unleashed by the supposedly rational schemes of American, Pakistani, and Saudi intelligence beginning in the 1970s, in which terrorists and extremists were used for short-term political gain, resulted in September 11, 2001."
And don't make the mistake of thinking Mr. Gravel is impressed by all the current talk about "change." This is how he ends "A Political Odyssey": "[Americans] cling to anyone who promises them change, however superficial. Under the current system that's all they've got. They deserve more. They must participate in power to alter this nation's march to disaster. That's the only change we can believe in."
John Greenya is the author of "Silent Justice: The Clarence Thomas Story."
ADDITIONAL PRODUCT DESCRIPTION
A Political Odyssey is a parallel history of one man's political career and the rise of the American military industry, the expansion of US territory and the growth of presidential power. Conceived and written by Joe Lauria, it is told through the eyes of Senator Mike Gravel. The stories collide when Gravel enters the Senate in the 1970s. After every war the US had demobilized and returned to a civilian economy, until after the Second World War. To avoid a new Depression and to keep the enormous profits from defense spending, false fears of an exaggerated Soviet threat were trumped up through the news media to induce Americans to support a war economy in peacetime. After three decades of coups, assassinations, wasteful weapons systems and invasions American militarists were defeated in the jungles of Vietnam. That opened a unique period of national self-examination: what had America done with the unprecedented power and wealth it accrued in a world devastated by World War Two? Was it used for human progress or simply to multiply that wealth and power? Congressional commissions in the mid-seventies unearthed the misdeeds of U.S. power wielded in the fantasy of continually re-fighting WWII.
In the Senate at that time, Gravel fought the militarists' by opposing their nuclear weapons tests; filibustering against the military draft and releasing the top Secret Pentagon Papers, which caused Nixon to sue Gravel to the Supreme Court. But militarism was restored when the Reagan counter-revolution swept out Democrats like Gravel and gave Congress to the Republicans. The fear mongering and militarism of the 1950s were back, the cloud under which we still live. The victors in that militarist restoration started with small probes: a landing on Grenada here, an invasion of Panama there, working themselves up to a limited ground campaign in Iraq in 1991. By 2003--just 23 years later--the resurgent militarists, with support from their courtiers in Congress and the press, felt bold enough to try for a Vietnam-sized invasion--in Iraq. The rise of the Cold War and the War on Terror--in personalities and tactics--are closely linked in the book. As the replacement for Communism, terrorism is the exaggerated threat to justify outlandish military spending leaving health care, transportation, education and alternative energy in crisis.
The book is full of gossip too: It delves into Gravel's private life, his affairs and his friendship with Frank Sinatra and other Hollywood stars. Gravel and his nemesis Scoop Jackson have it out in the Senate cloakroom after Jackson had taken Gravel to a private meeting in the Oval Office with Nixon, but Gravel still voted against Jackson on the militarists' prize ABM system. Gravel tangles with Ted Kennedy too, swearing at him to get his people off his back because he wouldn't become a Kennedy Man. Gravel and Carter did not get along and Reagan is called one the biggest knaves to occupy the White House.
After deep personal depression during the Reagan resurgence, Gravel makes a comeback arguing for a new form of citizenship, having been convinced through his experiences that representative government has failed. He runs for president in 2007 confronting the militarism of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the stage of the Democratic primary debates, which is where the book opens and closes. Gravel looks forward to the 2008 election and beyond, offering what he sees as a last hope for Americans to reject militarism, the central problem of our day.
Every once in a while I will break my self-imposed no-memoir rule for something that's either entirely on point with my life (memoirs from chefs, poker players, jockeys, that sort of thing) or something that's so completely off-point that I find myself attracted to it in a weird way (David B.'s Epileptic is the first one like this that springs to mind). Never, though, have I encountered a memoir that embodies both of those concepts until this one. It's on point because I voted for Gravel in '08 (though by the time the election rolled around I had to write him in), and not on point because I've never been what you might call a dove, where Gravel has always personified that characteristic, and as you can tell by the subtitle of the book, he focuses on his anti-war activities, when discussing himself, in this larger introduction to the rise of the military-industrial complex in America.
There's not really a huge amount of info in the history bits the average American who's kept his ear to the ground, especially since the beginning of Gulf War I (when the anti-military-industrial-complex folks started really publicizing a lot of this stuff), won't already know, but it's nice to have it all wrapped up in one package. And I'm sure Vietnam War historians already know the story of the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, though I didn't and I found those bits just as fascinating as anything in All the President's Men. What ultimately saves the book from being dismissable as simply a rehash or a survey is Gravel's ability to tell a story; the guy simply keeps you wanting to read by sounding like the raconteur sitting next to you on a barstool, sipping Calvados and regaling everyone around him with the tale of his latest conquest on the golf course or at the races or what have you. Not a bad little book, this. ***
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