Former Alaska Democratic senator Mike Gravel, an eccentric antiwar gadfly who famously starred in one of the strangest campaign ads in American political history, is almost certainly not going to be the next president. But he is considering running.
Initially, the announcement posted to Gravel’s long-defunct Twitter account on Tuesday before midnight prompted speculation that the 88-year-old, who left office in 1981, had been hacked, especially since it was followed up with a series of late-night posts that aggressively attacked other potential Democratic contenders and referenced popular memes. But a Gravel exploratory committee really did file paperwork with the Federal Election Commission this week, as Politico first reported. The campaign is the creation of three teenagers who met through Model U.N. at their high school in Westchester County, N.Y. And yes, they have the retired lawmaker’s approval.
“These young students contacted me a week ago asking would I run for president and I responded to them saying, ‘Do you realize how old I am?’” Gravel told The Washington Post. “I’ll be 89 years old in May, so it’s preposterous to think that I could serve as president.”
It took some convincing, but Gravel was ultimately persuaded by a three-page strategy memo that the students drafted and their assurance that they would handle all of the day-to-day work of the campaign. Their ultimate goal wasn’t to win the election but rather to qualify him for the Democratic debates, so that he could use that platform to “issue a critique of American militarism, plutocracy, and inaction on climate,” as his newly-created website states.
“These people weren’t just whistling Dixie,” Gravel said. “They were well-grounded.”
Managing the campaign are David Oks, 17, and Henry Williams, 18. Elijah Emery, 18, handles the finances. The three have a group text-message chat where they frequently talk politics, and worked together in 2017 to try to get Oks elected mayor in his hometown of Ardsley, N.Y. (Ultimately, Oks’s neighbor ended up winning. “Things have been awkward around the neighborhood,” he told The Post. “We don’t talk.")
A few weeks ago, the friends decided it would be “really cool” to draft a candidate into the race with the goal of pushing Democrats to the left, Oks said. In particular, they didn’t think that the existing slate of candidates was sufficiently progressive when it came to foreign policy. When the hosts of the leftist podcast “Chapo Trap House” referenced Gravel in a recent episode, the teens realized that the two-term senator would be the perfect choice. Gravel notoriously read the Pentagon Papers into the congressional record in 1971 after media outlets were enjoined from publishing the damning account of the Vietnam War and made a little-noticed bid for the presidency in 2008, with a platform that centered on criticizing American military intervention overseas.
“Every 2020 candidate is trying to be as progressive as possible,” Oks said. “By reintroducing these ideas, we thought that we could have a big impact on the ultimate Democratic platform.”
Gravel, for his part, also sees the campaign as a chance to champion the cause of direct democracy, which is the subject of a book he’s working on. He told The Post that he plans on pushing for the decriminalization of marijuana while raising the alarm about climate change and the threat of nuclear war. Though his age likely will prevent him from doing much traveling, “there’s a possibility we can do a lot through Skype to engage with people on the issues,” he said.
Back in 2008, Gravel had set up a Twitter account, but never used it. Late on Tuesday night, he handed it over to the teenagers, figuring that they knew more about social media than he did. They subsequently went on a rampage, declaring that Henry Kissinger should be sent to the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague and spend the rest of his life in prison, mocking Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) for allegedly inventing a fake drug-dealer friend and accusing former vice president Joe Biden of having “blood on his hands” from his vote in favor of the Iraq War.
Gravel’s account gained about 20,000 followers within about 24 hours, and his tweets were viewed 4.8 million times, Oks said. Even though they hadn’t posted Gravel’s ActBlue donation link, people somehow discovered it and donated $150 before the account was frozen. (The teens are currently trying to figure out why that happened; a message on the ActBlue site said that the fundraising page “has no active recipients.”) Meanwhile, their email inbox started filling up with résumés and offers to volunteer.
“Apparently, people are signing up in droves to be part of the campaign,” Gravel said with evident surprise. “We’ve gone viral.”
While the Democratic candidates that have entered the race so far have made a point of not criticizing their rivals, Gravel’s campaign team has taken the exact opposite approach. The teens argue that the point of a primary is to select the best candidate and that there’s no point in trying to keep other Democrats’ potential weaknesses under wrap.
“I think we are a bit caustic,” Oks said. “We are acerbic, one might say. We’re aiming for a certain wit. We’re not going to emulate the style of a typical presidential campaign where they do packaged videos and everything is approved five times.”
While Gravel maintains “veto power,” and the teens will call him up if they’re asked about issues that he previously hasn’t taken a stance on, he doesn’t review tweets before they’re posted. When a reporter called on Wednesday night, his wife had just been on her iPad, checking to see what the teenagers had been up to, and Gravel had been “explaining to them that there’s no point in picking on other people,” he said.
Given that he’s been criticizing American interventionism and the military-industrial complex for decades, Gravel said that he was surprised to learn that those views were resonating with teenagers and millennials. In general, people’s frustrations with the status quo seem to have “matured” since 2008, when his presidential campaign gained little traction, he said.
“Particularly young people, they’re just not buying into a lot of this crap that’s out there, and I can understand,” he said. “I never bought into it. Maybe for a short time while I was in office, but not afterward.”
In a few weeks, the three members of his exploratory committee plan to travel to California, where Gravel now lives, to discuss whether to go through with an official campaign announcement. For now, Gravel isn’t sure if he even wants to participate in the Democratic debates, which is the stated goal of the campaign. “If I was invited, I’d consider it,” he said when speaking with The Post on Wednesday, which was the closest he came to a commitment.
The teens backing him believe there’s a good chance that they’ll be able to reach 65,000 donors, the threshold set by the Democratic National Committee for candidates to have access to the first two debates. That might seem improbable, but then again, Andrew Yang, a little-known tech entrepreneur, surpassed the minimum number of donors last week after the #YangGang reached meme status. (Gravel now has his own hashtag, #GravelGang.)
In the meantime, Oks, his 17-year-old campaign manager, has to go back to school next week, as spring break is coming to an end. “It’ll be a fun thing to do for the rest of my senior year,” he said of the campaign, noting that serving as president of the Model U.N. team had now lost some of its appeal. After spending a frantic few days dealing with the complexities of election law and fielding media requests, “it seems a bit less exciting to play a minister of defense for Japan or whatever.”
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