JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, another in our ongoing series of conversations with Democratic and Republican presidential nomination candidates who are competing in the primary contests. Ray Suarez has tonight’s.
RAY SUAREZ: Democrat Mike Gravel is a former two-term U.S. senator from Alaska who served from 1969 to 1981. He was a strong critic of the Vietnam War and worked in the Senate to end the draft. He’s with us now.
FORMER SEN. MIKE GRAVEL (D), Presidential Candidate: Ray, thank you for having me.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, the big news from the campaign trail for many candidates today, the quarterly reports on fundraising. How did you do?
MIKE GRAVEL: I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I don’t know. For some candidates, it may be big news. It’s not big news for me. Stop and think. We all know that money is the corrupting element of politics. Why should we pay attention to who’s got big money, except to define who are the most corrupt running for office?
RAY SUAREZ: If you don’t have big money, do you have what you need to keep the campaign going?
MIKE GRAVEL: I sure do. I have this interview. This is big money. We’re being viewed by thousands and thousands of Americans. They’re going to hear my voice, not translated by watching a spot that I may pay $100,000 for. No, there’s enough communication going on in this election that it may filter through. We just don’t know.
There’s so many unknowns in this election. We don’t know what the Internet means. Here, I’m one of the top three on the Internet and sometimes first. And yet in normal polling, I’m down there at 2 percent, sometimes 1 percent.
The Union Leader right now is saying I should get out of the race because I’m only at 1 percent or 2 percent. They don’t say anything about Biden. They don’t say anything about Edwards or Kucinich. You know, I’ve come on the scene after an absence of 25 years, a whole generation, and I’m equal to these guys that have been in the news for the last decade or more.
RAY SUAREZ: I understand you’ve staked a lot of your own money, your life savings on making this run. Why did you make that decision?
MIKE GRAVEL: Well, first off, I used those life savings for the national initiative. On this campaign, I borrowed some money initially. Well, no, I didn’t borrow money. I was paid money that was due me, and I used that in the campaign.
But I’ve impoverished myself, and this bankruptcy with the credit cards, I used that credit card money to keep the National Initiative foundation going. And then when I fell on a bad year of health, like so many Americans, I was forced to go bankrupt in order to protect my wife in case something had happened to me.
But the issue is from my — what floats my boat, Ray, is the central power of government is lawmaking. If the American people are ever to get a hold of their government, they have to become lawmakers. And I’ve drafted legislation to do just that. It’s called the National Initiative.
And so we now face a crisis in this country where we have a problem. The problem lies with government. They can’t correct the problem. We now have to go to the people and what we have to do is to empower them as lawmakers so they can then correct the problems that we have. We have a generic structural problem that cannot be corrected by the government.
And so when these candidates are talking about change, they don’t know what change is. Solving the problem of health care, solving — those are policy decisions. I’m talking about fundamental change, where the people are brought into the operation of government, like as lawmakers, like they do in Switzerland, the only other country in the world where this exists.
"The structural problem"
RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me stop you right there. I want to understand better when you say that there's a structural problem with the country. What is it? And what is it that you're wanting to fix?
MIKE GRAVEL: Well, the structural problem is, is that our founding fathers -- in order to save slavery, I might add -- fixed it so the American people could not make laws. Now, George Washington, all the founding fathers, made statements to the effect that the American people should be able to make laws.
When they make the statement that we should be able to change our government any time we want, well, how do you do that? On the way to Philadelphia for some reason they left out the procedures for the people to make the changes. It's not in Article V. That's where the government amends the Constitution.
There's only one article, and that's Article VII, the creation article. And it's "We, the people, do ordain." Now, if we, the people, have to ask permission of Congress and the states to do anything to change our government, then obviously we're not the sovereigns, we're not the creators.
I mean, that language is ludicrous. And so if there's ever a chance -- and the people are smarter than their leaders -- here, what would you trust, a decision made by a constituency, the majority of 130 million people, or the majority of 535 members of Congress who do unbelievably stupid things?
RAY SUAREZ: Let's talk a little bit more about why you've decided to get in the race at an age where a lot of Americans are figuring out, how can I stress myself less, how can I work a little less? You're 77. Why put yourself through this?
MIKE GRAVEL: I love my country, and I love the human race. And I want to see a change made in the leadership of our country so we can do more to protect the human race. Just on the environmental question alone, we're going to cook ourselves off the planet in 100 years. With respect to my country going to war when there's no reason to go to war, killing human beings, I'm ashamed of this.
I'm ashamed of the leadership we have, whether it's Democratic leadership or Republican leadership. That's the reason why I'm in. I want to empower the people to make the changes in the structure of government and to turn around and provide leadership to end this war and end the policies that are just corrupting our whole process.
We spend more on defense than all of the rest of the world put together. Who are we afraid of? Certainly not the Chinese, who spend only 3 percent, or the Russians who spend 4 percent. Who are we afraid of? Why do we spend all this money? It's sick, and with all this money, we go invade.
Look what we're trying to do with Iran right now. Last week, the Lieberman resolution -- he's the guy that wrote the resolution with Iraq and killed over 3,000 Americans and a million Iraqis. And now he comes forward with another resolution, and the leadership of the Democratic Party in the Senate doesn't even have the brains or the judgment to recognize what he's doing.
Sanctions on the Republican Guard? They already have sanctions. The U.N. passed them in March, Resolution 1747. What is the game they're playing right now to have sanctions? I mean, this was AIPAC that put Lieberman up to do this. This is disaster. We invade Iran, and they'll use it as an excuse, just the way we did it in Cambodia and Laos, "Oh, we've got to solve that problem right over the border because they're damaging our soldiers."
The Iran resolution
RAY SUAREZ: You're saying that the national legislature of this country, rather than doing the will of the citizens of the United States, passed that Iran resolution, sanctioning the Republican Guard, because of the American- Israeli Political Action Committee?
MIKE GRAVEL: Wait a second. They'll be some information coming out about how this thing was drafted. So the answer is yes, the short answer.
Let me tell you how serious this is, Ray, because if we touch Iran and they respond, you're talking about, in the minimum, a world depression, because the oil industry will just get shut down at the Straits of Hormuz. That's the minimum.
The worst that will happen will be a nuclear exchange, and I don't think we'll ever be able to contain once they start shooting bombs at each other nuclear devices. This is what's at stake with this resolution. And it's the height of immorality, irresponsibility, and the United States Senate, with the Democrats in charge, voted for the passage of this resolution. It doesn't get any worse than that, Ray.
RAY SUAREZ: A lot of people don't know much about your background. And it's an interesting one, so I want to spend a little time on that. Grew up in Massachusetts, the son of French-speaking immigrants from Canada. English is your second language.
MIKE GRAVEL: Correct.
RAY SUAREZ: Educated in New York City, but somehow, a short time later, speaker of the house of Alaska and eventually a U.S. senator from there. How did that happen?
MIKE GRAVEL: Well, I got to Alaska. I was broke. I'd been in politics ever since I was 15 years old. I'm more of a theorist now and an activist. That's the reason why I'm running. I'd much rather just be a theorist, believe me.
Jack Kennedy had it right. Running for president is terrible. Being president is pretty good. And so I'm in the terrible stage right now. But I just think it's so important to do that.
And I've been informed by one thing. Like I said, I went to Alaska. I was broke. And 12 years later, I'm sitting in the United States Senate, and I give an account of myself in the Senate. It was very controversial. People look back and say, "Ended the draft, released the Pentagon Papers, stopped the nuclear testing in the North Pacific," all of that. And, of course, at the time, I was being excoriated by mainline media, mainstream media.
Now when we look back, you think the guy is so courageous back then that he did that. Right now, the same thing is happening. What I hear from people on the street, "You're a breath of fresh air." I wish I could turn that around to use it as a slogan, but it doesn't lend itself for that.
What they're saying is they can recognize the garbage they're getting from the political process. And people want a change. They intuitively know that something is radically wrong with what is going on in our leadership. And I'm not talking about just the Republican leadership. I'm also talking about the Democratic leadership under the likes of Bill Clinton and the others.
Relating to regular people
RAY SUAREZ: Does the fact that you've been broke a couple of times, that you've driven a cab in New York city, worked as a brakeman on the Alaska railroad, and the child of immigrants give you some feeling for regular people that you think your opponents don't have?
MIKE GRAVEL: Well, there's no question about that. I am regular people. I mean, I've taken the bus back from New York because I couldn't afford to take a plane ride or didn't want to take a plane ride. I take the train. You know, we don't travel around with a retinue of media in a private jet. And, of course, I pay a price for that, because they don't cover me on a continuous basis like they do the other candidates, but that's the nature of the beast.
I am an ordinary person, and I will be an extraordinary president. That's why I admire George Washington so much. Here's an ordinary man who did the extraordinary. And as president, I will do the extraordinary and turn this country around on a 180 and go in the opposite direction.
And for those who may think that I'm too old to do this, keep in mind that John XXIII in the '60s, they made him pope at 68. He died in '82 and changed the Catholic Church more than had been done in 500 years. Konrad Adenauer raised Germany from the ashes, left office at 85. You know, there's a new saying in Hollywood, and that is 70 is 50, and gray is blonde.
RAY SUAREZ: A lot of the time you've spent with the other Democratic candidates debating around the country has been arguing about what to do about Iraq. What would you do?
MIKE GRAVEL: Get out. Get out as soon as possible so that we can begin a diplomatic effort. And I could get the troops out in 120 days. Never mind this year stuff, or two years, or four years.
The people who say we should stay there, they want to continue to control the oil. I wouldn't spend one ounce of American blood for any amount of oil coming out of Iraq. We're using our treasure to get control of the Titanic. We should be getting off of oil.
As president, I will get us off of gasoline in five years and off of carbon in 10 years. All it takes is some serious leadership to want to do that. Now, how we get out besides that? Put them on airplanes. Like I say, get them out in 120 days. Now, the Democrats...
RAY SUAREZ: But you mean all of them? Let me interrupt you just for a second.
MIKE GRAVEL: You're right.
RAY SUAREZ: No remaining...
MIKE GRAVEL: Marine guards at the embassy would be the only people that would be there. Get them all out. And not over the horizon; I'd bring them home. None of this stuff that we have to have a major military presence in the Middle East. We don't need a major military presence there, or Europe, or Japan, or Korea.
We begin to bring our forces home, and we begin to treat people around the world and governments as equals. And you'll fine it will work like magic. People want to emulate our principles, not our leadership, not our invasions, not our warmongering.
That's the reason -- they say people hate us for freedom. They don't hate us for freedom. They hate us because we cause some people and their families to be killed. When we surgically drop bombs -- this was the plan that we'll go into Iran -- because I'm very proud of the fact that Bush doesn't have the boots on the ground to invade Iran.
But many people in the military think we can do an air war there. It won't happen, just will not happen, and it will not succeed. And you'll see the results that I predicted earlier.
Revisiting American education
RAY SUAREZ: Domestically, you've talked not just about ending No Child Left Behind, but completely revisiting and restructuring American education. Give me some of the highlights.
MIKE GRAVEL: Well, the highlight of that is just make a comparison. Why is it that Finland, Spain, Sweden, Norway, they can educate their children from childhood to PhD status? Why can they do that? We're supposed to be the greatest country on Earth and we can't even -- here one-third of our children do not even graduate from high school. So you tell me about a child left behind?
What we need to do is treat our educational system the way foreigners treat it. Kids go to school in the morning and stay there until late afternoon, 5:00. Turn around, cut this stuff out of having three months vacation in the summertime with the capital investment of our schools lies fallow. Oh, no.
If we want to compete in the world, we have to turn around and teach our children to be educated and teach them that there's an effort in becoming educated. Now, that means we need to make education the first priority of this country. It's not. What is first priority of this country is the military industrial complex that I just referred to earlier, which commands all of the wealth of this nation.
We don't have health care. Our infrastructure nationally is falling apart. I mean, the nation is in serious difficulty. We have a $50 trillion fiscal gap.
Now, domestically, what would I do? The first thing, I would change our system of taxation. Our tax system is corrupt. The wealth have played this thing fairly well, and now what you have is carry the entire burden by middle America, and the poor get nothing. When they tell you they're taking care of the poor, not so.
What we need is a fair tax, a retail sales tax that is as progressive and can be made more so than the income tax, where the poor would now for the first time with a rebate have a cash flow coming to them. The average Americans would have the tax rebate of what they would be spending for the vital essentials of life. And that gives them anywhere from $300 to $500 a month, plus they go get their paycheck and there are no federal deductions from their paycheck.
Now, that's a change that we need to make. And what will happen, we'll change this country from a consuming nation to a savings nation. And that's how we'll be able to retire this fiscal gap that is bankrupting the nation.
RAY SUAREZ: Are you getting a chance to get that whole program out as you travel around the country?
MIKE GRAVEL: This is the first time on television that I've been able to get it out, the first time. I am limited by the major networks, at best, five minutes, at best.
And this is the first time that people have been able to hear me talk about the retail sales tax, talk about the war, talk about empowering them so that they can have a say in the kind of government they're going to have. The people are more qualified than their leaders to legislate on all the policy issues that affect their lives; that means bringing the people into the operation of government as the fourth check of our system of checks and balances that fail when one party controls all three of them.
RAY SUAREZ: Mike Gravel, thanks for being with us.
MIKE GRAVEL: Well, Ray, thank you for having me.
JIM LEHRER: For more on Mike Gravel, you can visit our Vote 2008 Web site at PBS.org. All of our candidate interviews and campaign updates are also available there.