NEAL CONAN, host:
You may know him for comparing himself to a potted plant, his quirky YouTube campaign videos or maybe you've seen him on one of the Democratic presidential debates.
Mike Gravel is a former senator from Alaska. He's running for president. And he joins us today from the, well, from a restaurant in Concord, New Hampshire.
And Senator Gravel, good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. MIKE GRAVEL (Former Democratic Senator, Alaska; Democratic Presidential Candidate): Oh, thank you for having me. I'm just walking from the restaurant to the studio…
Mr. GRAVEL: …and it really is snowing. My gracious.
CONAN: Well, in the meantime, if you have questions for Mike Gravel about the campaign and the issues, our phone number is 800-989-8255. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Senator Gravel is on his way to the studios of New Hampshire Public Radio, so he can speak to us in good quality. But Senator Gravel, we're just a week from the Iowa caucuses. As you look ahead, what would you define as a success?
Mr. GRAVEL: Well, first off, I've only been to Iowa twice and once for about two days and once for just one day, which I really haven't campaigned in Iowa. And probably one of the reasons why is that I oppose ethanol. I think it's a terrible national policy that we have. It's going to destroy farming, and makes no sense at all. So there's no point in my going to Iowa and campaigning and telling people that this is the wrong policy and losing votes…
CONAN: Ethanol, of course…
Mr. GRAVEL: …which I probably wouldn't get anyway.
CONAN: …ethanol manufactured largely from corn, which is a lot of it is certainly grown in Iowa.
Mr. GRAVEL: Yes, that's right. And all it's doing is destabilizing the entire agriculture industry. You know, we all know that it takes more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol equivalent to gasoline. But - you want to bring that in (unintelligible)…
CONAN: And I think we're making our way toward the studio.
Mr. GRAVEL: I am. I am.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GRAVEL: Either keep motioning me. And all of a sudden, I'm going to get a real mic here.
CONAN: Well, a real mic for Mike Gravel. Again, the former senator from Alaska and Democratic presidential hopeful is joining us, we hope now, from the studios of New Hampshire Public Radio in…
Mr. GRAVEL: Here I am. They've got me all set up: Mike, got to get a pen, pen. No - is this live? Okay, I'm going to get off my cell phone now.
CONAN: All right. Let's see if we can take the leap and electronically make the transfer. And Senator Gravel, can you hear us?
Mr. GRAVEL: I can - let's see. Let me get the headphone set up. Can you hear me?
CONAN: We can hear you fine. And this is…
Mr. GRAVEL: Oh, wonderful.
CONAN: The miracle of electronics.
Mr. GRAVEL: Isn't the technology today - anything is possible, that's why I feel I might get elected president.
CONAN: Well, you were just explaining to us your low expectations for Iowa. New Hampshire, where you are today, follows five days later. Again, how would you define success?
Mr. GRAVEL: Well, I would define success if I show up at all. And stop and think, I have spent in this campaign $300,000 and Hillary has spent 41, 40 to 50 million, same thing with Obama. All of the other candidates, by and large, have spent upwards as 10 million. And so if with my measly $300,000, if I place 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 percent, you don't think that's not a victory for the people? I think it is.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail we have from Jerry(ph). I'm constantly disappointed in my political leadership. I long for the day that real change will be brought from one of the two major political parties but I just don't see it. He writes, the Democratic Party speaks about real change and so on, but real change doesn't come from a party just because they haven't had the presidency for awhile.
The most well-financed candidates have the same financial backing as the Republicans. The Democratic Party kept quiet when you were not allowed to debate. They also kept quiet when Dennis Kucinich was not allowed to debate recently. Senator, given the innumerable obstacles for people like you who want true transparency and change, how am I supposed to believe in either party at all?
Mr. GRAVEL: You can't believe in either party because you're not going to get anything there. There is no there, there. There's only one possible result that would change is the shortcoming of representative government and the party system which is a corrupting influence on representative government. We always think in terms of money corrupting the process. The party system corrupts it, because you see the party is mostly interested in power not substance, and change will only come about from substance not power. So what I would advocate is that go to the situation of being able to vote to empower yourself - the national initiative.
I'm running for office because I wanted to empower the American people. I know the representative government cannot corrupt - correct the shortcomings it have. So if we can empower the American people, then just maybe - and I know for sure - they will have the capacity to turn around and to make the changes to representative government, and they'll be able to vote on all the policy issues that affect their lives. That's what needs to happen.
CONAN: If there's no there there in either party - and you include the Democrats in that - in the event that you're not the nominee of the party, would you be prepared to run for - on a third party ticket?
Mr. GRAVEL: Well, let's put it this way. I'm prepared to run all the way to get the message across, whether it's a third party, libertarian party, natural law party. I do know one thing that 67 percent of the American people do not think that the Democrats or the Republicans offer any, any hope for the future.
If that's the case, then that means that most Americans are ready to vote for somebody independent of the existing party structure. What that structure is, I don't know at this point in time. I do know that I can continue to run as a Democrat up until the August convention.
CONAN: Until the party nominates somebody…
Mr. GRAVEL: What I do…
Mr. GRAVEL: That's correct. And now, what I can do then as a free agent even before then as a free agent - there was nothing wrong with me talking with libertarians. I get a lot of libertarians who will look at my candidacy and say, hey, you know, we like Ron Paul but we like you too. And Ron Paul says he's not going to run after the primary. Well, I'll tell you, I have no such compunction. And if libertarians want to support me, I will enjoy that support.
If Democrats who are concerned about their party and don't want to see the continued ownership of the Democratic Party by Wall Street, which is really what's going on - and Bill Clinton in 1992, along with the DLC, hijacked the Democratic Party, took it to Wall Street and it's been there in residence ever since. And now, the Democrats are raising more money out of Wall Street than the Republicans. The same people who own the Republicans now are getting to own the Democrats. Is that what some Democrats want? That's not what I want and my bona fides as a Democrat are as good as anybody alive. And so, the party that I'm interested in is the party of ordinary citizens which is what was championed by Franklin Roosevelt.
CONAN: Let's get callers involved. Libby(ph) is with us. Libby joins us from Overland Park in Kansas.
LIBBY (Caller): Hi. My name is Libby. I'm calling to ask what Mike's views are on immigration. I agree with pretty much everything he's said so far. The problem is that the system as it is is so engrained that just like when the man from California ran last time, you know, he just takes so much away from the Democratic Party and then the neocons win and that's, you know, such a bad alternative. But my big question is I know New Hampshire doesn't have near the issue with immigration that we do out here in Kansas, and I wonder how the senator feels about that.
CONAN: Senator Gravel?
Mr. GRAVEL: Well, you raised several points. One is the issue on immigration is just as bad here in New Hampshire as it is in Kansas and every place else in this country. I look at immigration this way. When I was a kid, there was no immigration problems in this country. There's only been an immigration problem for the last generation, last 20 years or so. It started with some people saying, oh, there's a problem with immigration and people started ragging it around - the nativists. You know, primarily, you know, ever since they got off the boat, they don't want anybody else to come into their country. I'm first generation and - American and my parents are French Canadians and they came in and they were very modest.
Our country has been made great by immigrants. Now, when people say, well, we've got all these undocumented or illegal immigrants - if you want to talk about illegal things, let's round up everybody inside the Beltway in Washington, and I'll show you some serious illegality. So moving back to immigration, we now have a non-employment rate of 4.7 percent. Four point five percent is what economists assume is maximum. So that means that by and large, there's really not anybody in this country who has a job who's taking the job away from somebody else.
Now, if we had 10 percent or 15 percent unemployed, that's different. And there are certain pockets of unemployment in this country that are very serious. But if you look at the totality of it, there is no problem of unemployment by and large - there are pockets of it. And so now, focusing attention on Mexico and the Latinos coming into this country, that they're the problem - well, if the problem is so bad, why is it that in the last 25 years that we haven't been able to pass legislation to correct the problem? All I can say is maybe there's an insight here that we're missing. Maybe there is no problem, that we've created this problem politically when it really does not exist. And that's the point I'm trying to make with the unemployment figures.
But the other facet of this is that when a country fails - like ours, we fail in education; a third of our students don't graduate from high school; when we fail in health care - what, 50 million people aren't covered; when we fail as a power in the world - we go invading other countries, we incite violence worldwide; we fail - our bridges are falling down, our highways are clogged, we have gridlock across the country. We fail, we fail - and what do you do when you fail? You turn around and you look for a scapegoat. And so what do we do? We fail in handling terrorism. So what do you - you point to some people coming over from Mexico, or Latinos and point to them and say they're the problem.
That's what you do when you fail, you look for scapegoats. And I see a touch of the scapegoating in this whole issue of immigration. I see a touch of a non-problem in the issue of immigration. What I see as a problem - if we had leadership in this country, we would not have an immigration problem. People would be able to come in here when there's jobs to be filled and could go home when they're done filling those jobs. That's the kind of openness and the kind of presidency I would provide.
I don't know if I have satisfied your issue on immigration, but I'll tell you this, I want to empower you as a lawmaker. And I will probably have a national legislation on immigration, and we'll let the American people vote for it. And if you don't like my position, no big deal. I'm only going to have one vote, and you can cancel my vote. But I want you to vote on it. I want you to be responsible. So if we do make a mistake, then you'll suffer the consequences and make the necessary corrections and thereby mature as a citizen from the experience.
CONAN: Libby, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.
CONAN: We're talking with former Senator Mike Gravel, who wants to be the Democratic presidential nominee. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And Senator, we mentioned earlier, one of the YouTube videos that your campaign has produced. There's one in particular I'd like to ask you about. We come in and there's a picture of you looking sternly into the camera, and on the shore of a lake, you look for a couple of minute it seems like then you walk over and then grab a rock…
(Soundbite of water gushing)
CONAN: And throw it into the lake, and then you walk away. What's that about?
Mr. GRAVEL: What that is is - first off, it wasn't produced by me. It was produced by a couple of young men in California, and they were articulating a metaphor. The metaphor applies - and I'm flattered that they would apply it to me - but the metaphor applies to any human being. What you do is you focus on your life. You focus on wanting to do something important and influential with your life, and then you go do it. And that's throwing the rock and then - in the water. And that causes ripples, that causes effect on other human beings. And then you march off to your demise. That's what life is all about. It's trying to find something important to do, to do it and then to have an effect from having done it and then go after your demise. That's all that is. It's a metaphor of life.
CONAN: You mentioned earlier some affiliation with - not affiliation but affinity for some of the positions of libertarians, including that position that all drugs be legalized. Is that something that you're campaigning on now?
Mr. GRAVEL: Very much. In fact, I'm the only one - well, maybe Ron Paul has. I don't recall hearing him say it. But the war on drugs savages the inner cities of this country. The war on drugs is filling up our prisons needlessly. Let's take marijuana. Marijuana is not a gateway drug. Marijuana is not nearly as addictive as alcohol, and of course alcohol is legitimate, so we should be able to turn around and go buy marijuana in a liquor store.
Last year, we arrested 800,000 Americans over marijuana. Now, that's appalling. We have 2.4 million people in prison more than any other country in the world. This is a shameful situation that we have. And so, now let's look at what we call hard drugs. Well, the cocaine and other substances - if you need it, you should be able to go to a doctor, get a prescription and get it filled at the drugstore like you do with any other drug that's manufactured by American pharmaceutical industry. That's the way you handle drugs. And if there's an addiction problem - and there is, and it's not only the addiction that's been criminalized, it's - we all have it to some degree or other - then what you do is you deal with it as a public health problem which is exactly what it is. A friend of mine, a doctor in - Terry Benet(ph) in Rochester, New Hampshire, he's the one that pointed that out to me. He said, Mike, it's a public health problem. And by criminalizing it, what we do is we damage - we damage human beings, we damage families, we damage the inner city. That's the position I take. If that's libertarian, make the most of it.
CONAN: Senator Gravel, thanks very much for joining us today, both on the street on your cell phone and when you made it into the studio. We appreciate your time.
Mr. GRAVEL: Thank you for having me. I'm honored to be here.
CONAN: And good luck to you.
Mr. GRAVEL: Thank you.
CONAN: Mike Gravel, running for president of the United States, joined us today from the studios of NPR - from New Hampshire public radio in Concord, New Hampshire, also from across the street on his cell phone.
Today, we - temporarily losing a beloved member of our staff. Senior producer Carlene Watson(ph) is heading for Massachusetts for six months - for the waters. She'll be much missed. Good luck to her. And come back soon, Carlene.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Ira Flatow will be here tomorrow with SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll talk to you again on Monday. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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