Cover Story


By Michael Leahy
Sunday, September 9, 2007

On the drive over the Potomac from his apartment in Arlington, Mike Gravel tells his chief campaign staffer that he doesn't want him parking in any pricey downtown hotel garage. "Find a space on the street," Gravel says. "There've gotta be spaces with meters."

"Might be hard to find one right out in front of a hotel, Mike," Elliott Jacobson cautions.

"Just find a damn meter."

Jacobson knows when not to argue with his boss. Gravel so hates the expense of Washington parking garages that when he formally announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination last April he rejected taking his car in favor of riding the Metro to the National Press Club, the site of his kickoff. There, his cash-starved campaign instantly ran into trouble. The bills for the first day came to about $5,000 -- most of that for the rental of a Press Club room and a big Gravel banner. This presented a problem, given that there was only $3,200 in the campaign's account.

Such complications frequently bedevil second-tier candidates such as Gravel, who have multiplied in recent years, despite the fact that they have little chance of capturing the White House.

In the '70s, when Gravel was a two-term Democratic senator from Alaska who railed against the Vietnam War and had buddies in the Hollywood community such as Shirley MacLaine, he had an easier time raising money. But in 1980, he lost his Senate seat and slid into oblivion. Back now in campaign mode 27 years later, he finds himself with a Rolodex empty of well-heeled names, bereft of believers. A generation has passed since the major contributors and networks last took notice of him.

For the 77-year-old Gravel (pronounced Gruh-VEL) and his aides, the challenge is how to make an irrelevant man relevant again. His name hardly registers with American voters, even after four televised presidential debates, in which he has unleashed exasperated scorn for his opponents ("Some of these people frighten me") and demonstrated a penchant for crotchety one-liners ("I was beginning to feel like a potted plant standing over here"). He has received praise from liberal bloggers and become the subject of amused examination by smirking TV analysts who note the obvious: At 1 percent (max) in the polls, he is going nowhere.

Barack Obama raises $33 million in three months; Hillary Clinton $27 million. Gravel draws about $130,000 in the same quarterly period. Little money translates into scant media attention. It scarcely matters when he delivers a rousing speech lambasting the top-tier Democratic candidates ("those gutless wonders") for not advocating legislation to make it a felony for the Bush administration to continue the Iraq war. Generally, not a single television camera covers his events. Which raises the question: If a poorly funded politician delivers a loud oration in a barren forest and no one hears him, has his campaign made any sound at all?

"If we just had some money for TV commercials," Jacobson says. Depending on what's needed, Jacobson sometimes serves as Gravel's driver, sometimes as his scheduler and political adviser, sometimes as his finance chairman and field director -- and always as his faithful acolyte and rotund 65-year-old squire. Jacobson absorbs the brunt of Gravel's grousing, much of which is about Jacobson's health and struggles with his weight. As sidekicks go, Jacobson is Sancho Panza to Gravel's Don Quixote.

"This could be the greatest political story ever," Jacobson says. "The polls mean nothing." Jacobson fervently believes Gravel can win the presidency, end the war, dismantle the military-industrial complex and give the American people something called the National Initiative, which is the biggest cause of the boss's life. It is a Gravel idea that envisions American citizens bypassing Congress altogether and passing their own legislation after the creation of a federal initiative process, which, in turn, Gravel believes, would permit the people to put a check on elected leaders and end American misadventures, bad wars and corrupt politics. "Mike is a visionary," Jacobson says.

Having found a metered parking spot, Gravel and Jacobson are walking through a lobby of the Renaissance Hotel, where Gravel has an early Saturday morning speech to deliver to a potpourri of tax reform groups, at an event hosted by the National Taxpayers Union. Gravel mutters sideways to his aide: "You need to keep your eye on your watch and keep feeding the meter with coins. The last thing we need is a parking ticket. That's your priority."

"All right, Mike."

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