As It Happens

This 88-year-old ex-senator is letting 3 teenagers run his presidential campaign

When three teenagers asked Mike Gravel to run for president, his immediate response was: "Do you know how old I am?"

Asked if he has a chance of winning, Mike Gravel said: 'Oh God, no'

Former senator Mike Gravel has launched an exploratory committee to consider running for U.S. president. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

Read Story Transcript

When three teenagers asked Mike Gravel to run for president, his immediate response was: "Do you know how old I am?"

"I said, 'I'll be 89 in May.' And they said, 'Well, that doesn't make any difference," the former Alaskan Democratic senator told As It Happens host Carol Off. "That's when I started laughing."

But they weren't joking. 

David Oks, 17, Henry Williams, 18, and Elijah Emery, 18 — who met through a high school Model UN club in Westchester County, N.Y. — found Gravel's lifelong anti-war stance to be a refreshing change of pace, and they wanted to put him on the national stage. 

"Every 2020 candidate is trying to be as progressive as possible," Oks told the Washington Post. "By reintroducing these ideas, we thought that we could have a big impact on the ultimate Democratic platform."

A storied career 

Gravel has made headlines several times over his colourful career.

He famously read the Pentagon Papers — the U.S. Defence Department's damning report on the Vietnam War — into the congressional record in 1971.

He ran for president in 2008 and starred in a bizarre campaign ad in which he stares at the camera silently for several minutes before throwing a rock into a lake and wandering away.

And he's currently writing a book advocating for direct democracy, a political system in which citizens enact policy and legislation without the aid of intermediaries like elected politicians. 

"They sent me information of the research that they had done on me, which was awesome. They discovered many things that I had long forgotten," Gravel said. "So I knew that they were serious people."

Teens take over 

Now the trio are officially running his campaign.

They've taken over his social media. They're handling the fundraising. And they've filed the official paperwork with the Elections Commission to launch the "Mike Gravel for President Exploratory Committee."

They've even resurrected Gravel's long-dormant Twitter account to announce his potential candidacy for the 2020 Democratic primaries, and followed it up with a string of snarky attacks on his opponents, including Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Joe Biden

Henry Williams, left, and David Oks, right, are running Gravel's presidential campaign along with their friend Elijah Emery, who is not pictured. (Submitted by David Oks)

Using the hashtag #GravelGang, the trio have used the account to rebuke the Trump administrations' proposed policy in Israelcriticize political centrism and promote transgender rights

"We are acerbic, one might say. We're aiming for a certain wit," Oks told the Post.

"We're not going to emulate the style of a typical presidential campaign where they do packaged videos and everything is approved five times."

But you can expect that acerbic wit to be tamped down going forward, said Gravel, who doesn't approve of attack-style politics. 

"They gave me veto power at the get-go, and so I told them that I don't want to see any more negatives on other candidates, period," he said. 

"And they said, yes, fine that they would change their ways."

No chance of winning 

Asked if he thinks he has a shot of being his country's next president, Gravel laughed.

"Oh God, no. God, no. At my age, that's ridiculous to even entertain the thought," he said.

"What they want to do — and, of course, what I want to do also — is to raise, in the course of the campaign, the attention ... on issues that they think and I think are extremely important for the American electorate to become aware of."

His official campaign website makes that clear. 

"We're not asking for your vote, and we're not planning on contesting any primaries. We're seeking to reach 65,000 donors, qualify for the Democratic debates, and use that platform to issue a critique of American militarism, plutocracy, and inaction on climate," reads a statement on

"Sen. Gravel is willing to leverage the national stage such a moment would give to say what establishment candidates won't, whether on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the Saudi-led mass murder in Yemen, or the need to immediately end the War on Drugs."

Once his run is over, Gravel said he plans to put his support behind Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.

Gravel, far left, is pictured here at a 2007 Democratic presidential debate. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

Gravel said he hasn't decided yet whether he'll participate in presidential debates, if given the chance. 

"Once I'm invited into the debates, I'll make that decision, if I'm up to it. But but clearly I'm up to write a book, I'm up to make this interview," he said. 

"And when it comes to the issue of empowering the people to make laws, I'm very articulate on that. And I don't normally get senior moments there."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Mike Gravel produced by Kate Swoger. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.