ORANGEBURG, S.C. – The first Democratic debate in genteel South Carolina was a tame affair, but it produced a breakout star: Maurice (Mike) Gravel, a cantankerous former New York cabbie who gleefully threw political bombs all over the joint.
Gravel walked into the debate $900 in debt. Five hours later, his campaign had pulled in a cool 10 grand.
“I’m going to be your next president. You just don’t know it yet,” Gravel said Friday, basking in the debate afterglow. “Everyone’s going to hear a lot more from me.”
The unknown Gravel took the stage with political superstars such as Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, and he stole the show with his cranky old coot routine.
He told the other candidates they frightened him, and accused them of preparing to nuke Iran, which he said already had “the bejesus” scared out of it.
He scolded them for refusing to call the Iraq war lost and declared testily that he felt like a “potted plant.”
By Friday morning, the Internet was abuzz with Gravelmania – blogs were burbling, and clips showing his debate highlights were circulating online.
“People didn’t know me before. Now all of a sudden they find out that I did more in four years than all the others have done ever,” Gravel reasons.
Gravel, 76, whose name is pronounced “gruh-VELL,” last made headlines as a senator from Alaska in the 1970s. Born in Springfield, Mass., to French Canadian immigrants, he went to Columbia University in the 1950s.
“I went to class all day and drove a cab all night. It made me tough,” he recalled.
For protection, he carried an ice pick. Twice, he foiled attempted robbers, once by brandishing his ice pick and once by simply abandoning the cab in an intersection.
He moved to Alaska, ran for office and made it to Washington by unseating – ironically for an anti-war candidate – one of the only two senators who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that led to the Vietnam War.
Gravel’s big splash came with the Pentagon Papers, a secret Nixon administration study into the mistakes of the Vietnam War obtained by the New York Times.
When the administration tried to stop publication, the anti-war Gravel read the papers aloud in Congress.
Gravel lost his seat in 1980 and went back to Alaska, where he worked as a real estate developer. He and his wife, Whitney, now live in Washington, and he runs an outfit called the Democracy Foundation, which promotes direct democracy.