Bob Graham's message to the voters is simple: However frightened we are, it isn't nearly frightened enough
By Michael Grunwald
Sunday, May 4, 2003; Page W08
There were no breathless murmurs of anticipation. A hush did not fall upon the Senate chamber. The senators kept chatting and gripping each other's arms in the way that senators do. Nobody really seemed to notice when the senior senator from Florida, a chubby-cheeked 65-year-old Democrat named Bob Graham, rose last October 9 to add his voice to the debate about the war in Iraq.
Everybody knew that Graham was a sober, conscientious, unfailingly courteous grandfather who couldn't light up a room with a barrel of Iraqi crude and a Zippo. The Almanac of American Politics had described him as "careful, methodical, thorough, hardworking, reliable" -- it might as well have added "zzzzzzz." He was known as one of those mild-mannered moderates who don't rock boats or make enemies or generate buzz, who respect the dignity of their august institution and the opinions of their distinguished colleagues.
"I appreciate the thoughtful remarks of the senator from Connecticut and the senator from Arizona," Graham began. He wore a plain gray suit and one of his trademark Florida ties, with Mrs. Grundyish glasses perched at the end of his nose. The Florida reporters in the gallery braced for a typical Bob Graham speech: high-minded, long-winded and entirely devoid of quotable sound bites.
And then he started yelling about terror and danger and death.
"We are not talking about a threat 90 days from now!" Graham roared. "We are not talking about a threat that may come a year from now if nuclear material is made available!" His cherubic face turned purple. He gesticulated like a manic third-base coach, jabbing his fingers, pumping his fists, sweeping his hands across the lectern. "I am talking about a threat that could happen THIS AFTERNOON!"
Bob Graham as a modern-day Paul Revere? Bob Graham as a screaming-banshee Chicken Little? "I'd never seen Bob like that," recalls his best friend in the Senate, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. At his golf club in Miami Lakes, Fla., Graham was notorious for his plodding pace, for analyzing and reanalyzing every putt from every angle. He had a similar reputation as the Democratic chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, where he was dissed behind his back as the Tortoise for his earnest six-part questions and incessant requests for meetings.
In more than three decades in public office -- including two terms as governor and three as senator -- he had earned respect for his honesty and integrity, but had rarely made a national splash. His main claim to fame was his bizarre habit of scribbling the dullest conceivable minutiae of his life -- the chocolate Slim-Fast he drank, the red shorts he changed into, the Jim Carrey video he rewound -- in little notebooks that he color-coded by season. (He even recorded in his notebooks the time he spent recording in his notebooks.) And even those daily logs were oddly devoid of feeling. Once on a trade mission to Brazil, when Graham's plane had a mechanical crisis, he had meticulously recorded: "2:39 p.m. -- pilot announces hydraulic failure, must make emergency landing."
But now, suddenly, Graham was preaching like a prophet of doom, hectoring his colleagues that Americans were dangerously vulnerable to terrorist attacks, that militant groups like Hezbollah could be even deadlier than al Qaeda or Saddam Hussein, that war in Iraq would only increase the threat at home. And then he went further: "If you believe that the American people are not going to be at additional threat, then, frankly, my friends -- to use a blunt term -- blood is going to be on your hands."
Bob Graham said the Senate would have blood on its hands?
"I was like, Whoa! No way Uncle Bob said that!" marvels William E. Graham, the senator's nephew and the CEO of the Graham Companies, the family's real estate firm. Paul Anderson, the senator's communications director, had helped prepare Graham's floor remarks, and he knew he hadn't written anything about blood on anyone's hands. "I was completely speechless," Anderson says. Several former Graham aides frantically e-mailed one another transcripts, with "Wow" in the subject line. "We were all asking each other: Is this our Bob Graham?" says Margaret Kempel, who used to run Graham's South Florida office. "He's never been a freakout guy."
Suddenly, Bob Graham has become a freakout guy. In fact, assuming he continues to recover from January surgery to replace a valve in his heart, he plans to run for president as a kind of freakout candidate, a red-alert politician for a freakout nation. He rails about "hardened assassins" living among us, plotting attacks on American soil.
He fumes about dramatic intelligence failures, massive security gaps, "modern Armageddon." He frets about seaports and airports, nuclear plants and chemical plants. "It would be relatively easy," he says, "for a terrorist to poison a water utility and kill thousands of people." He hasn't screamed much since the blood-on-your-hands speech -- and he's been particularly measured since his own brush with mortality -- but he now peppers his methodical geekspeak with words like "outrageous" and "scandalous" and "inexcusable." As this article went to press, Hussein's fall had not provoked any new attacks in America, but Graham still insists that the risk to Americans from terrorism is as high as ever. "The gun," he warns, "is still loaded."
There is a theory that Graham's scary new persona was born of opportunism, that he has seized on terrorism as a hot-button issue to ride to the White House -- just as then-Sen. John F. Kennedy exploited a dubious "missile gap" in 1960. Graham was the only presidential candidate to vote against war in Iraq, prompting speculation that he was maneuvering to run as a dove in a Democratic primary. "It sounds like a classic case of campaign fever," sniffs a Bush administration official.
But if Graham is a dove, he's an extremely rare bird. He supported the first Gulf War, and only opposed the second one because he had a long list of countries he believed were more dangerous than Iraq, and didn't want to jack up the risk of terrorism for a low-priority target. He hints that he could support military action against known terrorists -- al Qaeda in Yemen, Hezbollah in Syria, Lebanon and Iran, and even Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza. His message is simple: There are many people with the ability and desire to kill Americans, so we'd better kill them first. "We've taken the pressure off al Qaeda," he complains. "We haven't done anything about Hezbollah. We need to take the fight to the terrorists."
In fact, few people who have followed Graham's career -- and few people who have seen the same classified material that he has -- think politics has much to do with his preachings. They say Bob Graham is no Jack Kennedy -- and the threat of terrorism is no made-up missile gap. "The thing is, he's a serious man, not a showboat, and he's absolutely right to be concerned," says Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican who worked closely with Graham on the intelligence committee.
House intelligence committee Chairman Porter Goss of Florida, another Republican, says he can't understand why Graham's dire warnings haven't gotten more attention: "Bob Graham is not a grandstander. He's one of the most responsible people I know. He's sounding the alarm, loud and clear, and no one seems to be listening."
In this edgy era of duct tape, sleeper cells and Cipro, the alternative to the opportunist-demagogue theory of Bob Graham's transformation is much more disturbing: Maybe the former Senate intelligence chairman is genuinely convinced that something awful is going to happen.
"Bob is a responsible guy; if he says something, it's true," says Buddy Shorstein, his former chief of staff and one of his best friends. "I'll tell you, that's what scares the hell out of me."
Daniel Robert Graham was born into politics on November 9, 1936, less than a week after his father was elected to the Florida Senate. There was an accidental quality to both events.
The Graham family patriarch, Ernest "Cap" Graham, was a tough and gruff pioneer, a demanding man of few words and fewer printable words. He was trained as a mining engineer in Michigan, ran copper and gold mines in Montana and South Dakota, then served as an Army captain in World War I before moving to Florida to start up an experimental sugar plantation in the forbidding saw grass marshes of the Everglades. After the waterlogged farm went bust in the Depression, his bosses let him keep their swampland at the western frontier of Miami, and he converted it into a dairy. But Cap had a problem. The nearby town of Hialeah was controlled by the thuggish Hyde-Slayton Gang, and his drivers kept getting arrested and "fined" by corrupt cops during milk runs to local Piggly Wiggly stores. So Cap ran for the Senate, and promised to clean up the Hialeah mess.
It was a gutsy move. Bill Graham, Bob's older half-brother, recalls picking up the phone one night to hear a man growl that his dad would be dead by noon. The harassment just got Cap angrier, though. Years later, the gang's leader, Red Slayton, sent Cap a letter from the state penitentiary, apologizing that he would be unavailable to vote for his reelection, but calling him the only honest politician he'd ever met: "You said you'd run me out of town and throw me in jail, and you kept your word."
Cap had three children with his first wife, a schoolteacher named Florence Morris, before she died of cancer in 1934. According to family lore, he had insisted that he didn't want more kids before marrying Hilda Simmons, another young schoolteacher, whom he had met on a Greyhound bus. He was over 50; he had a business to run; he was launching a political career. Bob happened anyway. "A happy accident for me," Bob says today. "My mom used to say I got my political affliction going to rallies in the womb."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
Speaking of the risk of terrorism, Sen. Bob Graham says. "The gun is still loaded."
(Photograph by Grant Delin)