Graham Jabs Hard at Bush
Democrats Laud Message Despite Doubts About the Messenger
By David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 21, 2003; Page A04
He looks like an apple-cheeked grandpa and has a tendency to break into snatches of song during his campaign speeches, but there's nothing gentle about the way Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) is lighting into President Bush.
In recent days and weeks, Graham has compared Bush to President Richard M. Nixon; accused Bush of misleading the public on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and other subjects; called Bush "the most environmentally unfriendly president in history"; and charged the president with failure to finish off al Qaeda when he had the chance.
There is scant evidence yet that Graham's flurry of punches is helping his presidential campaign, though one recent poll showed him moving up from the low single-digits to the head of the second tier of candidates. His entry into the race was delayed for open-heart surgery, and when at last he got started, the presidential campaign was buried under war news.
But Graham does have some Democratic Party insiders talking, and he appears to have encouraged some of his rivals for the nomination to chime in.
"He's really got a bead on this thing," said one senior Washington Democrat of Graham's anti-Bush barrage. "He's absolutely got the right message." But then he added the frequently expressed view in the capital that, because of his age, personality and recent health problems, Graham "is just the wrong messenger."
To Graham, the theme that ties his attacks together is truth-telling. "I have been as explicit as I am capable of being that I believe this administration has not been straight with the American people in terms of a number of issues," he said in a telephone interview yesterday .
Republican National Committee spokesman Jim Dyke dismissed Graham's charges as "conspiracy theories."
On the campaign trail, Graham bills himself as the most electable Democrat in the race. He points to his undefeated career in the swing-state crucible of Florida, where he has been elected statewide five times. At the same time that he touts his electability to the party's pragmatists, Graham has been giving party hard-liners plenty of red-meat anti-Bush rhetoric.
"From security issues to environmental protection, this pattern of hiding facts from the American people has made this White House the most secretive since the Nixon administration," Graham said this week, after the New York Times reported that Bush officials edited material about global warming out of a report by the Environmental Protection Agency. "Enough is enough. If George Bush won't trust America with the truth, then America shouldn't trust George Bush with the White House," Graham said.
Drawing on his experience as ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, Graham has pounded on the administration's failure to dismantle the terrorist group behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "Al Qaeda was on the ropes in 2002," he said during a trip to Iowa this month, "and was allowed to regenerate." He likes to call Osama bin Laden "Osama bin Forgotten."
Graham has accused Bush of "using the economy cynically to pay off contributors" and steering tax cuts to "a thin band of the wealthiest Americans."
In perhaps his sharpest jab, he has lit into Bush for "misleading" the public about the likelihood that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Bush "politicalized [and] manipulated" intelligence reports to back up the case for war, Graham said.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) picked up on that charge this week. "He misled every one of us," Kerry said of Bush.
Republicans countered by digging up statements by Graham and Kerry, made before the war, that sound every bit as certain as Bush that Hussein posed a threat with weapons of mass destruction. For example, Graham told CBS radio interviewer Charles Osgood in December: "We are in possession of what I think to be compelling evidence that Saddam Hussein has . . . a developing capacity for the production and storage of weapons of mass destruction."
"I hope that we'll find the WMD to avoid the very negative consequences if we don't," Graham said when his earlier remarks were read back to him. "But the question now is: Did the administration give to the American people a balanced assessment of the certainty that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?"
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