They’re last but not least

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Times Staff Writer

ONE is a Democrat, the other a Republican. They’ve never met but share much in common: Both wear dark suits and sneakers, for one. Neither has a lot of money. Both are running for president.

Mike Gravel and Ron Paul. Mike and Ron. Their names, sharing space at the bottom of the polls, seem increasingly linked. Each came out swinging in the debates and scored points for candor and quirkiness and, in Gravel’s case, crankiness.

The oldest of the declared candidates, Gravel, 77, and Paul, 71, have become the campaign’s upstarts. They’ve helped draw an audience that might otherwise not have tuned in to the earliest-starting primary season in U.S. history.


After the first debate, Gravel generated more Internet traffic than any other Democratic contender except Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. Through much of June and early July, “Ron Paul” was among the top three most frequently searched terms on the Web. Paul’s YouTube videos were viewed 2.3 million times.

So who are these guys? Can two old men in rubber shoes win their parties’ nomination to be leader of the free world?


Mike Gravel, former senator from Alaska, has just flown in to Portland on a red-eye from Indianapolis.

He rode economy in a middle seat in row 25, landed in the City of Roses after 2 a.m., grabbed some sleep and strolled into the hotel restaurant just past 11 a.m. -- the cutoff time for breakfast.

“Would there be any chance you could manage one more breakfast?” Gravel asks the gum-chewing hostess. “I’m sorry ... “ she begins. Then someone from behind whispers to her that this man is running for president. He’s important.

The hostess looks the candidate over.

Gravel smiles at her like a man to a favorite grandchild. Was this the same person whom commentators, after the first debate, called cantankerous?


He wears the obligatory uniform of male presidential hopefuls, dark suit and tie, and looks top to bottom like a decent enough fellow, with his thinning white hair and rimless spectacles. The hostess glances at his shoes: black strap-on Velcro walkers.

She sighs. “This way,” she says.

He orders eggs, hash browns and toast with honey. He talks about his flight. “My feet were hurting so bad I couldn’t sleep,” he says. His voice, coincidentally, sounds gravelly. Gravel (pronounced gruh-VELL, as in his old campaign slogan, “Give Hell, Gravel!”) suffers from neuropathy and chronic back pain, so traveling can be agony. Meditation helps him. In-flight movies too.

At one point during the meal, a supporter, Deborah Petri, 38, who has driven down from Tacoma, Wash., to meet him, approaches to shake his hand. “You’re my hero,” Petri tells the candidate. “I love you.”

She, like many other supporters, loves him despite his deficits -- or perhaps because of them. His numbers in most national polls remain below 1%. Broke, jobless and politically marginalized, Gravel can’t help but relate to the struggling masses. He’s one of them.

His story in sum: former Army counter-intelligence officer; married to second wife, education consultant Whitney Stewart Gravel; father of two grown children; twice bankrupt; U.S. senator from Alaska starting in 1969; gained a national reputation as a maverick lawmaker willing to go against his own party; best-known for his theatrical opposition to the Vietnam War.

In 1971, Gravel read aloud passages of the Pentagon Papers, a secret government report describing U.S. military decision-making in Vietnam, entering 4,000 pages of the 7,000-page report into the Congressional Record. The report fueled the movement that eventually forced the end of the war.


But after a dozen years in the Senate, Gravel lost his seat in 1981 and disappeared from public life -- until April 2006, when he became the first Democrat to declare his run at the presidency.

Gravel had become angry over the government’s inaction on the Iraq war, which he considers immoral. He also wanted to bring attention to a project he had worked on privately for more than a decade: the concept of governing by “national referenda.” His idea, which he calls “the National Initiative,” is to turn the American people into one giant legislative body.

The people, once and for all, would decide on the most pressing issues, from illegal immigration and healthcare to the war in Iraq and the war on drugs; he considers both wars disastrous.

At his age, it was now or never “to accomplish something, more than what I’ve already done, before I die,” he says between bites of toast. “Our chances of winning are remote. But you never know. Lighting could strike.”

Jimmy Carter, Michael S. Dukakis and Bill Clinton were relative unknowns when they entered the races for the 1976, 1988 and 1992 Democratic nominations. Carter and Clinton went all the way, of course.

During the first Democratic debate this spring in South Carolina, Gravel scored laughs and stole the show with his old-coot routine. He said the front-runners “frighten” him with their unwillingness to rule out the use of nuclear weapons. “Tell me, Barack,” Gravel said in the most quoted line of the debate, “who do you want to nuke?”


His performance started what supporters call “Gravelmania.”

“I couldn’t believe he just turned to the other candidates and asked them a serious question,” says Nick Urban, 24, a campaign volunteer from Olympia, Wash., who had driven to Portland with Petri. “It was just so surprising. He made it a real debate.”

Gravel lobbed another grenade during Monday’s debate, when he accused fellow Democrats of selling out the party.

“Look at where all the money is being raised right now,” he thundered. “It’s the hedge funds. It’s Wall Street bankers. It’s the people who brought you what you have today. Please wake up.”

Gravel, who claims to have “zero net worth,” began his campaign in debt and continues to struggle financially. The latest figures show his campaign has raised $175,000 but has spent $197,000.

No chartered planes or suited chauffeurs await him. In fact, with breakfast done, he needs a ride.

Gravel is in town on a sunny Saturday to speak at a Unitarian Universalist event exploring the relevance of the Pentagon Papers. He must be at the Oregon Convention Center in 30 minutes and has not arranged transportation.


Urban volunteers to drive. He hadn’t expected to be put to work but appears glad to help his man out.

“I get shotgun,” Gravel says.

The candidate and his press secretary, Alex Colvin, pile into Urban’s old green Saab along with Petri, and the car speeds off.

At the convention center, the candidate meets up with an old political ally, Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. The two white-haired men share a private moment before Ellsberg introduces the candidate to a crowd of several thousand.

Ellsberg’s words seem to capture the abiding essence of Gravel, and Ron Paul too, and for that matter all underdogs who face impossible odds.

“The fear of looking foolish is what keeps people in line all their lives,” Ellsberg tells the rapt audience. He glances at Gravel at the speaker’s table. “Here is a senator who is not afraid to look foolish.”

In cyberspace, Gravel continues to generate buzz, but no one knows whether it will translate into votes. On his official website, one recent discussion topic began with this intriguing title: “Mike Gravel and Ron Paul as third-party Pres/Vice Pres Ticket!”


“Hey Gravel,” says one post. “Give Ron Paul a call!”


IN the lobby of the Hyatt Regency in downtown Kansas City, Mo., the sea of people does not part for Paul, who is here to speak at a National Right to Life Committee convention. The sea hardly stirs, in fact, as he makes his way to the hotel coffee shop one floor down.

Paul descends the escalator like he moves across the country: unrecognized except by a passionately loyal few. Like the 50-something woman wrapped in scarves who approaches the table where Paul and his campaign manager, Kent Snyder, have just seated themselves.

“I want you to know I think you’re so real,” she gushes at Paul. “I wish I could give more.” Scavenging the bottom of her purse, the woman digs out a crumpled $10 bill. She hands it to him and rushes off, scarves fluttering.

“Usually they put it in an envelope,” Paul says.

Snyder snatches up the bill, because every dollar helps. It’s been predicted that serious contenders for the nominations will have to raise tens of millions by the end of the year to compete. Paul, as of mid-July, has raised $3 million. Plus, now, $10.

Ron Paul stands 6 feet slightly hunched, with graying hair and brows over crinkly eyes that turn into slits when he laughs. His suit hangs loose over a slender frame. A onetime high school track star in his native Pennsylvania, he once ran the 100-yard dash in 9.7 seconds. Paul now sports a bad knee; thus the sneakers.

His demeanor could be described as the opposite of commanding. Avuncular comes to mind. Kindly. Almost ministerial, which fits with the family story that Paul once considered becoming a Lutheran minister like two of his brothers.


His resume in brief: Air Force veteran, gynecologist and obstetrician who has delivered 4,000 babies, married with five children and 17 grandchildren, 1988 Libertarian candidate for president and 10-term Texas congressman from the Gulf Coast. He calls himself a champion of the Constitution. His nickname, “Dr. No,” comes from his consistent opposition to big (or even midsized) government, taxes and war.

Paul says he’d prefer to spell his nickname “Dr. Know.”

“I’d like to think I study the issues,” he says.

In the second GOP debate, he offered an almost scholarly explanation for growing anti-American sentiment abroad. America’s policy of intervening in foreign affairs, especially in the Middle East, he said, partly explains Islamic anger.

“We’ve been bombing Iraq for 10 years,” he said.

It was at that moment that Kansas City resident Richard DeYoung, 28, a software engineer, decided Paul was his man.

“I was absolutely floored by his candor,” DeYoung says. “He’s not about trying to pander to the American people. He’s about giving his take on the truth.”

When supporters asked him to join the race two years ago, Paul resisted. But the supporters -- many from the Libertarian pocket of the Republican base -- persisted, and Paul relented, partly egged on by his frustration over the current crop of candidates. None of them, he believes, would end American involvement in Iraq immediately. Paul says he would.

“Things were getting worse. More men were dying in the war, and Ron felt responsible for what was going on,” says Carol Paul, the candidate’s wife of 50 years. The couple talks on the phone two to three times a day. She makes him chocolate chip cookies to take on the road.


“I worry for him,” she says. “He gets very tired.”

Paul is the last of four Republican candidates to speak in front of the conventioneers on a hot Thursday afternoon. Afterward, half the room applauds, and the other half looks him over, seemingly unmoved.

Later the same day, about 500 supporters gather in an antiquated downtown theater for a rally. It is a crowd of believers. They roar and chant and hold banners announcing “the Ron Paul Revolution” and cheer wildly when the candidate, looking slight on the grand stage, takes the podium.

He shields his eyes from the lights. He shoves a hand in his suit pocket. He thanks the crowd and says how great it is to be in Kansas, which raises eyebrows because he is in Missouri.

“People ask, ‘How come you’re doing so well on the Internet?’ ” Paul says. His speech is countryside-slow. “It might just be that freedom is a popular idea.” Big applause.

In 20 minutes of oration, Paul tells not a single joke. True to form, he mentions the Constitution frequently. “Almost every problem we have is because we didn’t follow the advice of the founding fathers and the Constitution.” Bigger applause. “What we want is noninterference by the government in our personal lives.” Standing ovation.

On the stage, he displays no tendency to grandstand, no attempt to be winsome or even likable, although his sincerity seems to compensate. Paul’s charisma seems to be that he has none. Charm, in this circle, equates to phoniness.


“The media say about me, ‘He did all right but, boy, he’s not very charismatic,’ ” Paul says. “Maybe I should take classes.”

Outside the theater, under a scorching summer sun, a handful of supporters wave Ron Paul placards to endless passing cars.

The latest CNN poll shows Paul at about 2% nationally among registered Republicans.

“Go, John Paul!” someone screams from a pickup.

“It’s Ron!” a sidewalk supporter screams back.

The revolution has a ways to go.