Bob Graham promoting novel ‘Keys to the Kingdom’


Former Senator Bob Graham’s experience on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence gave him real-life experience for fictional plots. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Bob Graham, the former U.S. senator from Florida, is pushing his first novel, “Keys to the Kingdom.” He’s always been a dedicated book promoter.

In 1983, the Democrat was governor of the Sunshine State, and his nonfiction “Workdays: Finding Florida on the Job,” about his habit of working proletarian jobs around the state, was tanking. Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry stopped by.

An excerpt, mid-interview:

GRAHAM: Yes, but what ARE you going to do to promote our sales? (Grabs tape recorder again.) We haven’t sold a book in the last seven months.

BARRY: You need more pictures of naked people and less pictures of you in there, Governor.

GRAHAM: If beefcake it takes, beefcake they’ll get.

Twenty-eight years and Weiner-gate later, Graham, 74 — prudently — is not offering beefcake to boost sales. But he’s out here on tour, making the rounds of parties, book signings, television interviews, print interviews, all to plug “Kingdom,” his just-released thriller about Saudi Arabia, terrorism and America’s messy response to both.

Here he is in the lobby bar of the Madison Hotel on a recent morning, in suit and tie, silver-haired, still one of the nicest politicians anyone ever met. He puts down his iced tea to pull out one of his famous/notorious/obsessive pocket-size spiral notebooks in which he records almost every minute of every day. He flips to the “Keys to the Kingdom” page in the notebook. He looks down. He’s still not happy about sales.

“Here I have a list of things to talk to the publisher about. Probably one of the recurring complaints of all authors is their books don’t get displayed sufficiently. So when I go in a bookstore — well, I would not admit to the fact that I might occasionally move a book.”

“What else do you have there?”

“I have a page of things I want to talk to my wife about.”

“Just a page?”

“Well, actually, I see this one is front and back.”

In “Kingdom,” a certain 71-year-old former senator from Florida, John Billington, has retired to a prosperous little town his family pretty much built from scratch, based around their old dairy farm near the Everglades. Billington makes small notes to himself in a little spiral notebook he always carries. He’s former chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and often writes op-ed pieces for major newspapers. (Feel free to note a certain resemblance to the author).

Billington has an urgent assignment concerning Saudi Arabia for Tony Ramos, a young Cuban-American go-getter in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research who, as it happens, is fluent in four languages, including Arabic and Pashto. (He’s also former Special Ops, a hip dude, handsome, a tennis champion, drives a black Mustang and dresses in Zegna suits. His nickname is the “Will Smith of State.”)

Billington is scared, he tells Ramos in a phone call, but he won’t tell Ramos why over an unsecured line. Before Ramos can get to Florida, a black pickup truck runs down Billington, killing him.

From there, the story bounces over much of the globe — Mumbai, Zurich, Miami, Kuala Lumpur, Washington, Islamabad, Ramallah and heck, even San Diego — as Ramos struggles to piece together a nuclear weapons threat.

Graham started the book five years ago as a means of voicing concerns over the “unanswered questions” about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He says “about 40 percent” of the book is based on factual experiences, pulled from his time spent in the Senate, where he was privy to state secrets. He wrote about security concerns in “Intelligence Matters,” a 2004 nonfiction recounting of security problems around 9/11, what he saw as the Bush administration’s failures to respond to the crisis, and the runup to the war in Iraq. He says he was frustrated that the book wound up heavily redacted by security agencies.

After his 2005 retirement, he was lecturing at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard when Joseph S. Nye Jr., then dean of the school, suggested that a way around the impasse might be turning to fiction, as Nye had done with “The Power Game: A Washington Novel.”

Nye, now a University Distinguished Service Professor at the school, remembers the conversation.

“We talked about it a little bit. . . . In fiction you can explore some sensitive issues and extrapolate your own dreams, nightmares,” he said. “It gives you a leeway that you don’t have in prose.”

Graham was intrigued; after all, the security standards for fiction are much more lenient than for fact.

“A light came on. I started thinking about what I wanted to say in fictional form.”

He stitched in the book around stints on commissions looking into the oil spill in the Gulf of New Mexico and the nation’s financial crisis. He found that he was compulsive about his notebook but not about his fiction.

“I’m not a very disciplined writer. I don’t get up at 6 a.m and start writing. I did it when time was available. A lot of it was done on airplanes.”

But one habit did inform the other.

He was studiously taking notes at a Feb. 19, 2002, meeting with Tommy Franks, the general then in charge of the U.S. Central Command, at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Franks pulled him into a private room and told him that the United States was no longer really fighting in Afghanistan, as deployments were being shifted to prepare for the invasion of Iraq. Although the Bush administration was still saying no decision had been made, Graham says it was clear to him that invading Iraq was a done deal.

In “Intelligence Matters,” Graham wrote that the meeting “shatter[ed] my faith in the integrity of the Bush administration.” In “Kingdom,” the meeting makes an appearance as well.

“[From the notebook] I was able to have a quite accurate use of that conversation in the novel.”

He’s hoping that sort of behind-closed-doors verisimilitude, along with the book’s other thrills — an exploding airplane, love, sex, murder, treachery — might lead to good reviews. Who knows? It might even boost sales.

Neely Tucker is a staff writer in the Sunday Magazine. He has reported from more than 50 countries around the world and from two dozen of these United States.
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