washingtonpost.com
Last
He is rock bottom in fundraising and the presidential polls, best known for comparing himself to a potted plant. What makes Mike Gravel run?

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."

"Feed the meter."

A young man in a dark suit walks over to Gravel. "Good morning, sir. And you're with what group?"

Gravel brushes at his silver hair, smiles and extends a hand. "I'm Mike Gravel. I'm running for president."

"Oh, yeah?" The young man chuckles, as though suspecting he's being played with here. "President, huh?"

Gravel gets this a lot. "Uh-huh. I'm speaking here this morning."

At that moment, an older man rushes up to him, hand outstretched. "Senator Gravel, nice to see you. Thanks so much for coming."

A few middle-aged men gather around Gravel. One guy raises a finger. "Whatever gave you the idea for that campaign spot you guys have done? Saw it on YouTube. It's hilarious."

Gravel's knot of listeners leans closer.

"That's not a campaign spot," Gravel says. "The --"

"It cracked me up, senator. Particularly that one where you're just staring into the camera and saying nothing. And then throwing that rock into the pond and --"

This is his lot in life: to be ready to talk about his ideas, only to be cut off by somebody dying to know about this video that he didn't create. "It was made by two young art teachers from Los Angeles," he says.

Overnight, the screen time made Gravel, if nothing else, a subject of fascination on the Internet and led to the mistaken belief that he masterminded the video. He answers truthfully when asked about it: He simply did as he was told by the two art teachers. At the teachers' urging, he picked up the rock, threw it in the pond, turned and, as he tells the men in the hotel, "walked down a road."

"What does it all mean -- the rock-in-the-water thing? I'm not sure I got that."

Gravel hadn't quite known what it meant either when he tossed the rock. But, like any smart politician who has heard a question several hundred times, he has developed a response. "The rock in the water creates ripples -- which symbolizes ripples of change."

Gravel is wheeling around, looking for Jacobson, who has taken a seat at a table, eating a bagel.

"You're keeping an eye on that meter?" he calls to his aide.

Jacobson nods. "Mike, good bagels here."

"The meter, Elliott."

Jacobson disappears to put coins in the meter. Gravel walks into a ballroom, where about 50 people quietly wait, most of them sipping coffee and reading newspapers. The event seems an odd fit: a Democrat from way out in left field trying to pitch himself to a largely conservative, libertarian-leaning Republican audience rabidly disdainful of federal tax policies. But in the next 10 minutes, Gravel demonstrates the quirky appeal of his iconoclasm; he offers not a Democratic platform but simply his own contrarian view of things. He calls for the abolition of the federal income tax and all corporate taxes. He vows to push for the institution of a national sales tax that he calls the "fair green tax." Such a tax, he promises, "would change us from a consuming society to a savings society, because the less you bought the less you would be taxed." Polite applause ripples through the ballroom. Gravel touches on his opposition to the war and his support of term limits even for the judiciary.

Jacobson has returned, sweaty from trudging outside and stuffing the meter. Gravel wraps up. "You might not think I can get elected," he says. "And that's not important. What's important is that I am bringing a campaign no one is bringing . . . I brought an end to the draft with a five-month filibuster when I was [in the Senate in the early '70s] . . . I was very controversial then, and I was not popular. That's leadership . . . Well, this leader is back. His name is Mike Gravel, and he is running for president of the United States."

He leaves the stage. Outside the ballroom, he looks over his shoulder. "Where's Elliott?" Gravel cranes his neck for the aide, who has plopped down at a nearby table, holding a fresh blueberry muffin and a bagel.

He walks down a hallway with Jacobson alongside him: "You took care of the meter?"

"Uh-huh."

Jacobson pants a bit, struggling to keep up, raising his bagel aloft for Gravel. "Did you try one of these, Mike? They're great."

"You don't need that bagel," Gravel says.

A woman approaches, introducing herself as a local television reporter and requesting an interview. Gravel says he'd be honored.

The reporter directs Gravel to a chair while two cameramen take up positions and Jacobson finds a seat against a wall. He closes his eyes and falls asleep.

The cameras roll. The TV reporter delivers an enthusiastic greeting. "Thank you for being with us, Senator Gravel," she says, mispronouncing her guest's last name, calling him GRAV-el, like the little stones you might find in a pit, like what you get called when you have a name ID and poll numbers so low as to be subterranean. Midway through the interview, one of the cameramen, hearing a strange sound coming from behind, wheels around.

Jacobson is snoring, loudly.

Gravel forges ahead, oblivious to all distractions. As the interview ends, Jacobson awakens. "Sleepy," he says.

On the way out of the hotel, Gravel says, "Believe me, none of this -- the money, the big entourages -- will matter when people understand my message: that people need to empower themselves and that I have the idea to change the paradigm of human governance as we know it with the National Initiative. I just need mainstream media to give me a chance. You know what the truth is? It's not that my ideas are a joke. What's truly troubling is that I'm treated as a joke, just like anyone else who doesn't have big money. How is that good for democracy?"

He lets the question hang there, then almost spits the next phrase. "Second-tier candidate. What the hell does that mean? I'll tell you what it means when the media says it. It means that they think they can justify treating you as a joke . . . It means a few people decide who gets anointed as a serious candidate and who doesn't."

SECOND-TIER CANDIDACIES ARE A RELATIVELY RECENT PHENOMENON IN AMERICAN PARTY POLITICS. They first appeared in the '70s, born of the rapid expansion of presidential primaries, when long-shot hopefuls suddenly had nothing to lose in testing whether they might be able to excite voters and circumvent the skepticism of party bigwigs.

Before then, with relatively few primaries in a campaign season, the bigwigs held sway over the nominating process. Even in the turbulent '60s, political bosses and the state conventions of both major parties selected most delegates to their national conventions, generally channeling support to well-known contenders (some of whom had fared well in the few primaries) while dismissing obvious dark horses. "Second-tier" was not even part of the political parlance. The closest breed to the second-tier was the "favorite son" candidacy,

generally a reference to a long-standing senator or governor of a state who, while not actively seeking his party's nomination, held the pledges of his state's delegates. While not a serious threat to win, a favorite son was at least a serious player, with chips to barter if he wished to strike a deal with a real contender. A player such as Gravel, without chips from the beginning but participating in debates nonetheless, simply did not exist then.

Even with the proliferation of primaries since then, the only second-tier candidate to go all the way was Jimmy Carter, an obscure, one-term Georgia governor who descended on Iowa a full year ahead of the 1976 Democratic caucus there, an unprecedentedly early start to a presidential campaign in the state. "Carter won Iowa and acquired momentum that took him all the way to the nomination," recalls Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia. "After Carter, nobody will allow a second-tier candidate to get a jump on the field ever again."

No second-tier candidate since 1976 has won a nomination. (Bill Clinton in 1992 was too well-funded and too well-organized to be labeled second-tier.) But with so many second-tier losers, losing has lost its stigma. To run and lose in a presidential race has become a r?sum? booster: a chance to take a place on a debate stage, sit for interviews on Sunday talk shows, burnish credentials, build celebrity. Losers generally depart better known than the average senator. Even candidates running in the low single digits can enhance their careers. Such is the case this year with antiwar libertarian Republican Ron Paul, the Texas congressman who, in blaming 9/11 in part on American Middle Eastern policy, incurred the wrath of Rudolph Giuliani during a debate and won the attention of a new crop of supporters who herald him as a principled dissident.

The surge in televised debates over the past two decades has provided incentive for firebrands looking to bolster their reputations. "No one has ever been hurt by being a presidential candidate," says Mary Beth Cahill, campaign manager for 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. "Look at Al Sharpton."

Before 2004, the New York minister and civil rights activist was perhaps best known for having falsely accused a New York prosecutor of participating in the alleged 1987 rape and abduction of a 15-year-old girl named Tawana Brawley, whose story was eventually discredited. But, in 2004, Sharpton joined the Democratic primary battle against Kerry and others, using the opportunity to talk about the needs of urban America in particular.

"It was the smartest move Sharpton ever made," Sabato says. "It may have wiped out Tawana Brawley. He's got the aura of spokesman now . . . A presidential campaign means getting some legitimacy. Winning has nothing to do with it for most of these people."

"That's certainly not me," says Gravel. "I'm going to win. I know it's going to take some luck, but I can do it."

He hasn't always felt that way. Back in late 2005, as he moved closer to a candidacy, Gravel told some friends and supporters that it didn't matter if he won; that what counted was promoting the causes he most cares about it, particularly the National Initiative. Jacobson told him to knock it off. "People have invested their time and energies in you. It's demoralizing for them to hear you talking about losing," Jacobson recalls telling his boss.

At about the same time, Gravel met with young people enthusiastic over his passion against the war and eager to see him run. "It suddenly occurred to me that if they got so excited listening to me about the war and the National Initiative, that I could convince other people, too -- I could actually win," he says. "And that's when I started believing, too."

THE CAMPAIGN CAN'T AFFORD MUCH TRAVEL, so Gravel takes trains and buses when he can. But not today. Today, he's flying to Indianapolis because he has a speaking invitation. His plane ticket and that of his press secretary, Alex Colvin, are being paid for by his hosts, who have arranged for economy fares. Gravel goes unrecognized throughout the flight, which speaks to the limits of a YouTube video and cable debates.

In Indianapolis, he is met by a representative from the Muslim Alliance of Indiana, the group to which he is scheduled to deliver a keynote address the following evening. When he reaches the hotel, Gravel speaks to a Muslim youth group in the ballroom. A young man, who hasn't been clued in on the pronunciation of his name, shouts, "Please welcome Senator GRAV-el."

Gravel smiles. He proceeds to deliver the closest thing he has to a stump speech, tailoring it a bit for this young audience that numbers no more than 50. He declares that he is "ashamed" that the other presidential candidates aren't coming. "I would apologize for the profiling done to you; it's wrong . . . Be proud of who you are, maintain your beliefs . . . Our country has destabilized the world. I'll end the war . . . I'll initiate a way to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians . . . I'll cut the nuclear arsenal in half. I'll see to it that Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are closed."

Respectful applause.

He touches on most of his big themes, though some topics, most notably his discussion of the war on drugs, sound discordant in front of a group in which everyone has sworn off alcohol and drugs. "We need to end the drug war . . . Marijuana is no more addictive than alcohol. You might be safer to smoke marijuana, because it's not so damaging to your body."

Quiet stares, a couple of mouths agape.

He makes his policy point: The drug war has filled the prisons with people who shouldn't be there.

"Question authority. Allah gave you intelligence. Use it."

Next, he heads upstairs to a hotel suite for a campaign fundraiser hosted by a Muslim supporter. The crowd, most of whom are immigrants, includes doctors and other upscale professionals. But it is sparse, with no more than 35 milling around the rooms.

About half an hour later, Gravel makes his pitch for campaign contributions: "I don't care if we have any money left when we're done. But until that time, I want to be able to make my voice heard, with your support. After the [first] debate, we raised $35,000 during a week or two. Lately, we've gone down from raising $1,300 a day to $300 to $400 a day . . . I don't need Hillary money; she gets a million in a night. If I can get just $10 million, I will win."

Colvin, the press secretary, steps forward. "Checks should be made out to 'Mike Gravel for President.'"

A few people make contributions of $50, $100 -- one for $200. But most slip out the door with their hands in their pockets. Still, Gravel is happy. "We raised around $900," he says. "Maybe even a thousand."

MAURICE "MIKE" GRAVEL GREW UP IN SPRINGFIELD, MASS., A SON OF FRENCH-SPEAKING IMMIGRANT PARENTS FROM QUEBEC. He didn't speak English until he was 7. He recalls suffering from what would be diagnosed many years later as dyslexia. "I was a poor student," he says. "It gave me an inferiority complex. I tried to compensate by looking for something that might give me stature."

In high school, on instructions from a man who employed him as a part-time soda jerk, he started handing out political fliers for local candidates. "I loved the recognition," he says. "I liked the way people listened when I talked about a candidate . . . It gave me confidence. And I had teachers who'd taken interest in me . . . I started doing a lot better."

After high school and a stint in the Army, he got an economics degree from Columbia University and began contemplating a career in politics. But where? Massachusetts, the land of the Kennedys and other political dynasties, looked off-limits to the young man with few social or political connections.

Gravel began poring over maps and books until he settled on just the right place to begin his climb, a place seemingly perfect for a newcomer, a land so politically virginal that it had no senator. In 1956, he drove to Alaska, not yet a state. Arriving without job prospects or money, he set out to find a city where he could get elected to something. He chose Anchorage, where he eventually found work as a brakeman on the Alaska Railroad. Later, he developed a real estate company, married and had two children. Alaska received statehood in 1959, and by 1962, Gravel had been elected to the state legislature, rising to become speaker of the House three years later.

After losing a congressional race, he set his sights on his dream job. In 1968, he defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Ernest Gruening in the primary and went on to win the general election. At the height of the Vietnam War, he set off for Washington, where he quickly won a following as an antiwar agitator willing to employ any legislative tactic, even a filibuster, if it had a shot of thwarting the Defense Department. At the same time, he felt a giddy rush of self-importance. "You can't help but be carried away with yourself when you're a senator," he says. "I sure was. Just having a separate elevator for senators, that pumps you with ego . . . The art of politics is not to let that show. When you've reached the point when you can fake sincerity, you've arrived. I saw enough of that kind of thing that, by the time I was through there, I didn't want to go back."

In 1971, as the Vietnam War raged on, he conducted a one-man crusade, filibustering on and off over a five-month period on the Senate floor, against legislation to renew the draft. His move provided the impetus for a deal in which President Richard Nixon and Senate allies agreed to let the draft expire two years later.

Gravel's anti-draft activities drew the attention of Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department analyst disillusioned with America's involvement in Vietnam. During Gravel's filibuster, Ellsberg had leaked the Pentagon Papers -- a top-secret, 7,000-page Pentagon-commissioned examination of U.S. actions during the Vietnam War -- to the New York Times and The Washington Post. The Times and Post ran excerpts of the papers, before stopping to await the resolution of court battles with the Nixon administration over its efforts to ban publication of the documents. Although the Supreme Court ultimately ruled against the attempt to exercise "prior restraint" against the two newspapers, its decision left murky the question of whether courts could hold the Times and The Post criminally liable for publishing national secrets.

In the meantime, Ellsberg had searched for another route to disseminate thousands of yet unpublished pages from the documents. Hoping to find a senator willing to place the papers into public record, Ellsberg contacted Gravel's office. With Ellsberg fearful that a watchful FBI might seize his remaining copies of the papers if he tried to deliver them himself, an Ellsberg acquaintance, Post assistant managing editor Ben Bagdikian, accepted the papers from Ellsberg in Boston and presented them to Gravel at the curb in front of the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. "I just moved them from the trunk of his car to the trunk of my car, and I immediately drove away," Gravel remembers.

Three nights later, Gravel publicly placed 4,100 pages of the Pentagon Papers into the record of the obscure Senate Public Work Committee's subcommittee on buildings and grounds, defying warnings from friends that he might be subject to prosecution for disclosing top secrets. He read from the papers as television cameras captured the moment. He had not slept for three nights, overwrought with fatigue and fear that he might be headed to prison. Then, as he tells it, he got an image in his head of a wounded serviceman he'd recently seen at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, a young man with a gaping hole in his calf from a bamboo spike planted in an enemy booby-trap. Gravel began sobbing. "I started saying I was ashamed of my country," he recalls. "I kept crying, and [an aide] leaned over to me and said, 'You're losing it.' . . . He told me to stop reading and just dump the rest of the Pentagon Papers into the [public] record. And that's what I did."

He was the freewheeling darling of liberals and many Alaska Democrats for a while. Then, in 1972, he spurned the judgment of his party's presidential candidate when he sought the vice presidential nomination, finishing third behind George McGovern's choice, Thomas Eagleton. Too much a renegade to be anyone's reliable political ally, Gravel was already angering key constituencies. In 1980, after suffering a humiliating primary defeat in a bid for a third Senate term, he quietly disappeared.

"I was going through a midlife crisis," he says. "I'd lost my job. I realized that a lot of people I'd regarded as friends were only people who'd wanted to be around me when I had power. Nobody wanted to hire me for anything important. I felt like I was worthless. I didn't know what I could do. And I was going through a divorce."

His ex-wife, Rita, he says, received his Senate pension. Gravel took a class in computers, looking for new skills. He got back into real estate in the '80s, with a plan to make money in condominiums. But the project sank into bankruptcy.

By 1992, he had abandoned his business career and created the first of his three political foundations, modestly funded by donations that he solicited from around the country. He went without a foundation salary for several years, now and then earning money by doing real estate consulting. He was on the way to fashioning his proposal for a constitutional amendment that would create a federal initiative process, a dream that has yet to rouse popular interest. The National Initiative, as he dubbed it, swiftly became the mission of his life.

By then, he had also married his second wife, Whitney Stewart Gravel, once an administrative staffer for late New York liberal Republican Sen. Jacob Javits. Money always has been a challenge for the couple. It wasn't until a few years ago that Gravel received any salary from his foundations. Early this year, Whitney lent about $12,000 to her husband's presidential campaign from her personal account, following the example of Gravel, who lent the campaign $60,000, which represented virtually everything he had. In early May, he ordered the campaign to repay him $10,000 so he could pay household bills. Whitney was repaid at about the same time. "We rent our apartment, and we only have one car," Whitney says. "It's not like we have deep pockets . . . But Mike believes in this so much."

At 61, with her husband on leave from his foundation work while he campaigns full time, Whitney works about 20 hours a week for a real estate development company. Her income has supported them since 1998. Initially resistant to his presidential candidacy, she worries sometimes still about the campaign's impact on their meager financial security. "I've been more involved in the campaign than I intended because of his lack of staff," she says.

Whitney clips articles for him, makes occasional campaign arrangements and sometimes reads over his news releases before she runs off to her job. "I've been able to follow my bliss," Gravel says.

Life hasn't always been blissful. In recent years, he has had a series of operations for excruciating back pain and foot problems. He has two titanium rods in his spine. Medicare paid for the operations but not for the drugs prescribed to treat his ills, he says. The cost of the drugs, coupled with expenses that he charged to his credit cards while promoting the National Initiative and his other causes, led him to file for personal bankruptcy in 2004.

But his presidential campaign, and his sense that it will bolster the chances of the National Initiative, so excites him that he is inexhaustible these days. "Next year at this time, the American people will be with us," he says. "It will have happened. And I will remind you that I predicted it."

LOGISTICALLY, AN IDEAL CITY FOR THE GRAVEL CAMPAIGN IS PHILADELPHIA, only a couple of hours away from his Arlington apartment, which means no need for planes, trains or lodging. A trip to Philly means that Gravel can leave at a decent hour and do what he's doing at this moment, stretching out with his papers in the back seat of a rented SUV, with Jacobson behind the wheel, cruising north on Interstate 95 on a hazy summer morning. Along the way, Gravel expresses delight with his schedule. "We have an interview with Philadelphia public television, we have a couple of other interviews, and we have a speech tonight," he announces. "The staff did a nice job setting it up, and Elliott is trying to get us a couple more things."

Jacobson drops off Gravel in front of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where he sits at an outdoor table along a noisy street and begins answering questions from a Philadelphia newspaper reporter. A stream of people in red T-shirts strolls by, carrying folders and chattering happily. Gravel interrupts the interview to call out to them: "What group are you from?"

"The National Educational Association," a woman answers. "We're teachers." They laugh. "On vacation."

He smiles. "Oh, yeah?" He gestures at the convention center. "Somethin' going on there?"

The woman nods. "Our NEA convention. Obama spoke to us this morning. He was fabulous. Inspirational. Hillary was here Monday. And Edwards and Dodd. Almost all of 'em, I guess."

Gravel looks stricken. "I'm Mike Gravel. I'm running for president, too."

"Are you a Democrat?"

He doesn't seem to hear the question. "I wasn't even invited."

"They said every candidate was invited -- Democrat and Republican."

"It could be our fault," he mutters, looking down for an instant. "But I don't remember seeing any invitation."

"You should talk to someone," whispers the woman.

"Maybe it got lost in the mail," Gravel mumbles. "Or maybe somebody on our end dropped the ball."

"Good luck," she says.

More bad news hits just as Gravel finishes this interview. Jacobson has heard back from the public television station: The Gravel interview was canceled by the station several days ago, because no one from the Gravel campaign had called back to confirm the date. Incredulous, Gravel walks through mobs of red-shirted teachers inside the convention center, looking up at a television monitor to see video of Sen. Hillary Clinton delivering an address to NEA members. "How could we not have known about this convention?" he asks. "There're thousands of people here. This could have been a wonderful opportunity for us."

Jacobson is speechless.

Gravel stares at Clinton smiling. "It's all kind of heartbreaking, isn't it?" he says.

With the television interview canceled, Gravel searches for a Dunkin' Donuts; he suddenly has an hour and a half to kill before his next obligation. "We don't have enough money to be anything but a thin staff," he says. "And we were even thinner a couple of months ago, when the invitation probably came. I don't want to blame anybody." (This won't be the last costly mistake: A staff failure to return a questionnaire from the AFL-CIO will later keep him out of the labor federation's August presidential debate.) By the time he is sipping an iced coffee in Dunkin' Donuts, he has come to see a bright side to what has just happened. "You need to let people make mistakes," he says. "That's why pencils have erasers. We'll be a well-honed machine by fall, believe me."

He looks at a quiet Jacobson, who is desultorily chewing on a bagel. "Elliott, we need to look for some speeches in New York," he says. "Make a note."

AS A JUNE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE AT HOWARD UNIVERSITY APPROACHES, Jacobson says to the boss that time needs to be set aside for preparation.

"Oh, sure, we'll have time for that," Gravel says.

"It's very important to get your answers down to a minute," Jacobson says.

Gravel nods. "Fine. We could do all that the day before sometime," Gravel assures him. "Or the morning of."

Gravel flies to the West Coast for a few events. He is scheduled to arrive back in Washington at 9 o'clock the night before the debate, but his plane is two hours late into Dulles. He doesn't get to bed until nearly 2 a.m.

On Debate Day, Gravel wakes up around 8:30 to discover a broken toilet paper holder in his apartment. It's nothing that requires immediate attention, but just the same, the look of it bothers him. Debate prep is put on hold. He drives the few blocks over to the campaign office at about 9:30 and rummages through a cabinet until he finds what he came for: a Phillips head screwdriver and some screws. He scurries home and attempts to fix the toilet paper holder. The screws aren't right, though. He gives up for now.

Jacobson calls.

"Yes, I'll read the briefing papers right now," Gravel promises.

He reads a little, but then decides to take a short nap. In the afternoon, he walks a few blocks to the Arlington offices of NewsChannel 8 television to do an interview. Jacobson has had some doubts about the wisdom of sitting for any local TV interview on a day when debate prep is arguably the priority, but Gravel thinks the exchange with a reporter will serve as a prep of sorts -- enable him to distill his thoughts.

By the time the interview ends, it's nearly 5 p.m. -- about two hours before he needs to leave for the debate. Jacobson drives the boss back to his apartment, where Whitney Gravel is already getting dressed for the big night. Ginger, their Shih Tzu-poodle mix, leaps on Gravel.

"Okay, Ginger, okay, I need to do something right now," he says.

Gravel says that he absolutely must focus now on his briefing papers. Everybody seems in agreement with this plan except Ginger, who jumps on him again, in dire need of a tummy rub. At 5:15, Gravel is still rubbing. A few minutes later, Ginger calms down, and Gravel takes a seat on his blue recliner and begins reading.

At 5:25, he yawns. "Do you think some caffeine will pick us up?" he asks.

He grabs a soft drink and shuffles his papers. "Elliott and everyone else are stressing the war," he says. "I have a couple of lines I'm working on here: 'No community has paid a greater price for this war than the African American community. It has paid for this war in lost opportunity costs.'" He flips his pages. "And I can say that the money we spend on the war could pay for 7.6 million new teachers, 4 million new homes. Maybe there're some other figures here that I can work in. I don't know if there will be an opportunity to direct something at Hillary or Obama. You can't plan on that too much."

He returns to the recliner and resumes reading. At 5:55, he leans back and closes his eyes. He naps, slightly snoring. Twenty minutes later, he has shaken himself awake. He rises, says he'll put some turkey tenderloin TV dinners into the microwave, and continues reading his papers while walking around the kitchen and opening another caffeinated drink. Whitney joins him, dressed and ready. As they sit down to eat, there is a knock at the door. Whitney answers. A neighbor enters.

"How's the candidate?" she calls out.

"Hi, Mona," he mutters, not looking up from his papers.

"Is the Secret Service going to frisk us?"

Whitney shakes her head at the neighbor, puts a finger to her lips.

Gravel's head doesn't rise for five minutes.

Eventually, Whitney breaks the silence. "Mike, we need to be leaving soon."

He stands, walks into their bedroom, puts on dress shoes, grabs a blue blazer and stuffs a red tie in the blazer. He will wear exactly what he has worn all afternoon, a blue shirt and white linen trousers slightly rumpled from having been napped in.

He rides over to the campaign headquarters, where friends and his staff are waiting for him, ready to form a modest four-car motorcade for the ride to Howard University. It's 7 o'clock, the debate two hours away. Gravel asks his small retinue to gather around. "I'm going to do the best I can tonight," Gravel says. "Enjoy it. Let's go."

As everybody walks toward the parking lot, Gravel stops. "Did somebody turn off the lights in the office?"

No one answers.

"Somebody has gotta turn off the lights. Jesus Christ." He rushes back in and flicks off all the switches.

BEHIND THE WHEEL OF THE LEAD CAR, WAITING ON GRAVEL, JACOBSON WAVES TO THE OTHER DRIVERS. He loves these moments -- the ride to the venue, the theater of it, the camaraderie, all this love and support being trained on a single man. His salary is supposed to be $3,000 a month, though Jacobson figures he has been paid for only five of the 20 or so months he has been working on the campaign. But who cares, he says -- he's always lived close to the financial edge, anyway. He has worked, off and on, for campaigns for about 40 years, and labored in an assortment of office jobs. But that isn't all he's done. He served as an advance man and community liaison for liberal New York Mayor John Lindsay in the '60s. He worked for a while in the Transportation Department during the Carter administration. He helped to shoot a documentary in Sarajevo as snipers indiscriminately fired at anything that moved.

He was engaged to a woman in Chicago, but, in the late '90s, she was losing a battle to emphysema, and he took two years off work to care for her. After her death, he attended a speech about an exotic concept called the National Initiative. He met Gravel. It was 2001, and he had no interest in going back immediately to a steady job. He started doing volunteer work for Gravel, coming aboard the payroll whenever the boss has been able to pay him.

The uncertainty of their arrangement suits Jacobson just fine. These days, in addition to helping Gravel, he's working on a screenplay for a Hungarian production company -- a thriller. He's as hopeful about its chances as he is about Gravel's candidacy. "But even if the film gets made, I'll be back doing another campaign," he says.

He is a political addict and a free spirit, much like Alex Colvin. In between bursts of social activism, the ponytailed, 36-year-old press secretary spent a year playing his acoustic guitar on Berlin street corners in the '90s, before going to India for a stretch to meditate and learn what he calls "the power of silence." Colvin's devotion to Gravel is absolute. "I couldn't have worked for any other [presidential] candidate," he says. "No one else is willing to stand up and get dirty like Mike is."

Top-tier candidates sometimes see their handsomely paid strategists jump ship for opportunities with more formidable contenders. But the eight-person Gravel team consists of staffers whose loyalties are non-transferable, in part because neither big money nor job titles drew them to the campaign in the first place. Twenty-two-year-old April Shapley, a graduate student in political management at George Washington University, had never heard of Gravel when she answered a help-wanted ad on a university online message board. "He was a Democrat. That's all I really knew . . . ," she remembers. "But I Googled him, and he had interesting ideas -- different, you know?"

The quietly efficient Shapley has impressed Gravel. It is Shapley's voice that has carried the most influence tonight in determining where Gravel will be riding in the motorcade. "He likes to drive himself places," Shapley said earlier to Jacobson, "but I don't want him driving to the debate. First, he drives like a maniac. And, for appearance's sake, it's just not good for a candidate to be driving himself. It doesn't look dignified."

AT ABOUT 7:45, THE TOYOTA CAMRY CARRYING GRAVEL IS DIRECTED INTO A HOWARD PARKING LOT AND UNDER A WHITE CANOPY. Gravel exits the car into a phalanx of security men chattering into walkie-talkies. One of the men leads him through the underbelly of an auditorium into a basement dressing room. Snacks are sitting on a table in front of a mirror.

"Look -- trail mix," the candidate says.

Gravel picks up a two-pound canister of trail mix. Another canister is alongside it. "Make sure we bring all this stuff back to the office," Gravel says to Shapley, pointing as well to some canned soft drinks. "Our office could use this, as tight as things are. Put it in that when we're done." He points at a black Howard University tote bag.

At about 8 p.m., an hour before the debate, he puts on his tie. Jacobson is sweating profusely. Whitney Gravel makes her way around the room, patting arms and whispering hellos. "I just hope that Mike's passion comes through the right way tonight," she says. "I get concerned if his passion goes too far and sounds like anger. But he looks very relaxed -- that's always a good sign."

At 8:05, rival candidate Joe Biden sticks his head in the door, waves and, saying nothing, keeps moving down the hallway.

At 8:10, a makeup woman enters and does Gravel's face. He closes his eyes.

"He's meditating," Whitney says. "He's getting centered."

Gravel reopens his eyes at about 8:15.

At 8:25, a man walks in carrying a small microphone. "I'm here to mike somebody," he says, looking at people around the room. "Mike Gravel? No? Are you Mike Gravel?"

"Over here," Gravel says.

Soon after, a production assistant enters the room. "We're ready to bring you out, sir."

After a 13-minute delay that includes a lengthy speech by the moderator and group photos of the candidates, the debate begins. Hillary Clinton is asked: Is race still the most intractable issue in America?

"For anyone to assert that race is not a problem in America is to deny the reality in front of our very eyes," she says in part.

She receives warm applause. Eventually, Gravel gets his turn. "One of the areas that touches me the most and enrages me the most is [the] war on drugs that this country has been putting forth for the last generation," he says. He employs some of his statistics. "In 1972, we had 179,000 human beings in jail in this country; today, it's 2.3 million, and 70 percent are black . . . If I am president, I will do away with the war on drugs."

Soft applause.

He does better, about 15 minutes later, when asked about the link between education and poverty. He deftly spins the question so that he can talk instead about the link, as he sees it, between poverty and the war in Iraq, throwing in a dig at his rivals in the process. "Twenty-one million Americans could have a four-year scholarship for the money we've squandered in Iraq," he booms. "Seven-point-six million teachers could have been hired last year . . . Now, how do you think we got into this problem? The people on this stage, like the rest of us, are all guilty and very guilty, and we should recognize that, because there is linkage."

The crowd claps and cheers. It will be his best moment. For the remainder of the debate, he sounds angry as often as not. The worst moment for him comes at the end, when moderator Tavis Smiley tries to cut the responses of two candidates, Gravel and Dennis Kucinich, down to 15 seconds apiece. Kucinich uses about 25 seconds. Gravel has no time for uttering more than a couple of sentences. The question is about the genocide in Darfur, to which most of the candidates have said that they would not rule out the use of American airstrikes.

After pausing as audience members shout that they can't hear him, Gravel says quickly: "We have to have a president who has moral judgment. Most of the people on this stage with me do not have that judgment, and have proven it by the simple fact of what they've done." Rushed, he has failed to complete his thought, wishing he had tacked on the words: "done with Iraq."

The audience laughs. But some of his rivals are not amused. Obama confronts him on the stage immediately after the debate ends and says, according to Gravel, "Who are you to call me immoral?"

"I think it went good," Jacobson says in a hallway. "But we need more prep. We gotta find the time."

At 11:30 p.m., they're leaving, headed for the parking lot. Gravel unknots his tie and turns to April Shapley. "Did you get all the goodies?"

"Pardon?"

"The trail mix? The drinks?"

Shapley sighs. "Oh. I left it back there. Sorry."

"We could have used that at the office. I didn't have any of that trail mix. You think the stuff is still back there?"

"It's gone by now, Mike," somebody says.

Gravel shakes his head.

THE NEXT DAY, ON ABC'S "GOOD MORNING AMERICA," GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS OFFERS AN ASSESSMENT OF THE DEBATE. He is largely complimentary about the Democrats' performances, though when the discussion turns to Gravel, he says, "In every one of his answers, Mike Gravel was determined to be the skunk of the party and attack the other candidates."

Gravel is privately delighted. High-profile criticism necessarily means a bit of high-profile attention, as well as a chance to parry and score points. Nonetheless, he works up some indignation. "Stephanopoulos is a pipsqueak flacking for Hillary," Gravel tells Jacobson at the campaign office. "And I represent a threat to Hillary because of what I say about her. That explains why the pipsqueak called me a 'skunk.'"

Gravel has agreed to be interviewed by Stephanopoulos for a taped segment to air that Sunday on ABC News's "This Week" program. "He thinks he's gonna have his way with me," Gravel says. "But I'll be ready for anything he pulls. I'm going to mau-mau him -- rattle him, shake him up. I'll show you what to do with 'skunk of the party.'"

While prone to lapsing into a defiant, stammering obtuseness on a debate stage, Gravel is far more formidable in a one-on-one setting, which Stephanopoulos discovers when the two men face each other in a suite at the Mayflower Hotel. As cameras roll, they talk for a while about Gravel's controversial two terms in the Senate. "You had a one-man filibuster against the draft," Stephanopoulos says.

"That's right," Gravel responds.

"You also read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record."

"You don't think I was treated like a 'skunk at the party' back then?"

Stephanopoulos touches on what he regards as Gravel's unrealistic tactics for ending the Iraq war, which include having Congress cut off funding for the conflict and having the president indicted if he were to fail to withdraw troops. Gravel then goes on the offensive. He suggests that Stephanopoulos was duped by the Bush administration at the start of the war; that he and other "mainstream media" were "lying down like a rug for George Bush." That remark will never air, edited out along with another exchange that follows a smiling Stephanopoulos's insistence that Gravel has no chance in the presidential campaign.

"Look at you," Gravel says, grinning himself now. He reminds Stephanopoulos that, early on, few had given little-known Bill Clinton a chance in 1992, and that Stephanopoulos got his first big shot in the Clinton campaign. "You were there when they had no one. You were driving the car."

Stephanopoulos sniffs. "I was in the back seat."

When it's over, Jacobson says: "That was his best interview yet. He's finding himself."

"I mau-maued him," Gravel says, once out of the suite.

The two friends stand there in a hallway, marveling, shaking hands.

"Hey, before I forget, we want to check on taking the train down to Charleston for the next debate," Gravel says. "A train. That's the way to go."

Michael Leahy is a Magazine staff writer. He can be reached at leahym@washpost.com. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company