By now, John McCain’s identity as a "maverick" has been pretty well demolished among thinking people, though it retains a tenacious grip on certain sectors of the media. In light of McCain’s support for overturning Roe v. Wade, his cave on torture, his hiring of significant numbers of Bush-Cheney staffers, his turn to Bush’s big donors, and, of course, the McCain doctrine of Iraq war escalation, you’d think that it would be the joke among journalists it is among bloggers, but what can I say? I guess they’re slow.
Those journalists so desperate for a maverick presidential candidate, though, should take a look at former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel (pronounced Gra-VEL), a long-shot Democratic candidate for president. Like McCain, if elected, Gravel would be the oldest president. Like McCain, Gravel’s major political experience is in the US Senate (1969-1981). Gravel also is a veteran, having served in the Army in the Counter Intelligence Corps in the early 1950s. And just as McCain's initial reputation was made on an act of Vietnam-era courage – refusing to be released from POW status early – in his past, so was Gravel's – entering the Pentagon Papers into the public record via his Senate subcommittee on Buildings and Grounds, and filibustering the renewal of the draft. But unlike McCain, Gravel is genuinely a maverick, with the good and the bad that comes with that status.
Gravel’s candidacy is apparently most motivated by his passion for direct democracy, in which United States law would be made through popular vote, similar to the ballot initiatives possible in 24 states. When I asked him what he would choose if faced with a choice between being president and having direct democracy, he didn’t hesitate, laughing as he said "that’s an easy one. I’m 76...if I get it, I get it. That’s not why I’m running. I want to empower you." Although the passion he expresses to "equip the American people to begin to change the law" is compelling, I am not sold on that proposal and am not likely to be convinced any time soon. But in other areas, as an outsider candidate and the maverick John McCain has never been, Gravel is willing to speak forcefully on a range of topics, saying for instance on Iraq that the Bush administration "trashed our credibility by going in. We restore it by leaving," that he "sincerely believe(s) nobody who voted for the war should be president," and that "the only thing worse than a soldier dying in vain is more soldiers dying in vain."
Gravel may be the longest of longshots, without even the national platform or the fundraising of Dennis Kucinich. But there’s about as little ego in his campaign as I can imagine of anyone running for any office – he’s doing it the hard way, slogging through what he admitted was the occasional embarrassment of a campaign without resources, and faced with an audience of perhaps 80 at Dartmouth College he said with some pleasure that it was one of the largest he’d had on the campaign – and there is no question of his sincerity and willingness to speak his mind. There’s honor in that.