He grew up in a coral-rock homestead built in the sweltering sloughs of the Everglades; after the hurricanes of 1947, he had to scurry upstairs as the house flooded and poisonous snakes invaded the property. As a boy, Bob drove tractors, loaded manure and raised a prize-winning heifer.
But he was also a politician's son, passing out chocolate milk at speeches during his father's unsuccessful race for governor in 1944, winning the title of Dade County's "Best All-Around Boy" from the Miami Herald, serving as president of Miami High's student body. Bill remembers him announcing as a boy that he would be governor someday. At the University of Florida -- where he was elected president of his fraternity and chancellor of the student honor court -- he made the same vow to a tall brunette named Adele Khoury, who ended up marrying him anyway. Soon Graham had risen from his rural roots to Harvard Law School, and was preparing to follow his father into public service.
Graham likes to emphasize his Florida cracker heritage, spinning yarns about his foul-mouthed father running quail hunters off his land, reminiscing about the annual cattle procession down Graham Dairy Road. He mispronounces "nuclear" the same way President Bush does, and uses "cotton" as a verb, as in, "Dad didn't cotton to quail hunters."
But it's worth noting that his family was one of South Florida's most upwardly mobile. Cap's oldest son, Philip, preceded Bob at Harvard Law by two decades, clerked for the legendary Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and planned a political career of his own. Instead, after marrying a woman named Katharine Meyer, Philip took over her father's newspaper and became an influential member of the Kennedy-era media elite before committing suicide in 1963. Cap's second son, Bill, made his mark in the business world. He converted five square miles of his father's pastureland at the fringes of the Everglades into a master-planned suburb called Miami Lakes, building a real estate empire that made the Grahams rich and financed Bob's early campaigns.
Philip Graham's newspaper, of course, was The Washington Post; his widow, the late Katharine Graham, became one of America's most successful businesswomen; one of their sons, Donald Graham, now runs The Washington Post Co. and is a passive shareholder in the Graham Companies. So there is a family connection between The Post and Bob Graham. Donald Graham is friendly with Bob, and Katharine Graham shepherded him around Washington power circles after his election to the Senate.
She mentioned Bob only once in her autobiography, Personal History, recounting how he spit on her when he was 3, but she did note that his political success was "a strange fulfillment of both his father's and Phil's ambitions." In any case, Donald Graham has pledged that The Post will treat his half-uncle like any other politician.
After his graduation from Harvard Law, Bob returned to Miami Lakes to do some lawyering for the family firm, then won a seat in the state legislature in 1966.
D. Robert Graham, as he called himself back then, was part of a vanguard of South Florida progressives sympathetic to civil rights, public education and the environment. After jumping to the state Senate in 1970, he became the leader of a liberal cadre known as the Doghouse Democrats, because they were always in the doghouse of Democratic leader Dempsey Barron and his conservative Pork Chop Gang.
"Bob would jump up and deliver these impassioned soliloquies," says Miami Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler, who was a young political reporter in Tallahassee at the time. "Then Dempsey would roll his eyes and bang his gavel, and that would be that."
Rumors started spreading around Tallahassee that a frustrated Graham might enter the 1978 governor's race. One of Graham's fellow Doghouse Democrats, Jack Gordon, asked Graham if the rumors were true. "Bob said: I'm going to be 40. If I'm going to do this, I've got to do it now," Gordon recalls. "I was a little taken aback." It was hard to see why Graham was in such a rush -- unless he had plans for much higher office someday.
Really, though, the race seemed more like political suicide than political maneuvering. The Democratic field already included the current lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state, plus a former governor and Jacksonville's mayor, all better known than Graham. And no South Florida politician had ever made it to the governor's mansion; Cap had come closest, placing third in a primary, prompting a Herald columnist to write that a South Floridian might actually win on a cold day in hell.
One night, Graham confided to Fiedler that he wanted to run, and asked him to be his press secretary.
"I was thinking: You poor, well-meaning, deluded guy," recalls Fiedler, who politely declined the offer. "I mean, it was obvious that Bob was going down in flames."
D. Robert Graham, the multimillionaire Miami liberal, certainly would have gone down in flames.
Instead, Graham ran as just plain Bob, a husband and father of four daughters, a nice young man whose family raised cows and built houses, a genial centrist who got along with everyone. He also had a brilliant gimmick: He spent 100 full days working ordinary jobs with ordinary Floridians. He worked as a cop, a mechanic, a bellboy, a trucker, a pooper-scooper, a steelworker. He fed nursing-home invalids, shaved psychiatric patients, hauled fertilizer, cleaned bedpans, built mobile homes, prepared Cuban sandwiches. He also spent a day in a Jacksonville poultry factory, prompting the Democratic front-runner, Robert Shevin, to grouse that Floridians didn't want a chicken-plucker as governor. Which prompted one of Graham's factory co-workers to chuck a rubber chicken at Slevin outside a Jacksonville debate.
The workdays totally transformed Graham's campaign, turning the little-known long shot into the people's choice. They also transformed Graham. "You know, as a boy, Bob lived way out in the country, all by himself. He was shy!" Adele says. "The workdays made him much more confident around people."
The gimmick really worked because Graham really worked. He wasn't just slumming. "He didn't just show up, make a speech, shake a bunch of hands, pose for pictures and then leave," a Palm Beach Post reporter explained. Graham also wrote a richly detailed campaign book called Workdays, featuring a cover photo of the disheveled candidate dripping in sweat, working as a lumberjack. The book is full of vivid anecdotes, from the violent marital dispute Graham observed on patrol with the Tallahassee police to his awkward run-in with Shevin's wife after carrying luggage up to her penthouse suite in an Orlando hotel. ("There was no tip," he wrote.)
Workdays is also a remarkable window into Graham's political education. He learned as a mechanic that Florida auto inspections were a joke. He learned at a nursing home that orderlies earned only $17 a day. He learned as a parking attendant that tiny curb cuts changed the lives of disabled workers. "Bob learned how real people struggle every day," says Charlie Reed, another former Graham chief of staff who is now a close friend. "It helped him connect policy to the real world." Today, Graham still does workdays; on his 385th, as a radio talk-show host, he let slip that he was thinking about running for president.
It snowed in Tallahassee the day of Graham's 1979 gubernatorial inauguration -- the cold day in hell after all. And in his early months in office, the old Pork Chop Gang blocked just about every initiative Graham proposed; one newspaper dubbed him "Governor Jell-O." But his popularity soon rebounded, due in large part to a single policy: He started killing people. The death penalty thrust Graham into the national spotlight for the first time. It also prompted pointed questions about his political motives -- questions that resurfaced only when he became the Cassandra of the war on terrorism.
In May 1979, Graham sent a murderer named John Spenkelink to the electric chair, America's first involuntary execution in more than a decade. Graham had voted for capital punishment as a legislator, but many Floridians had doubted that he'd actually fire up Old Sparky.
But Graham proceeded in his cool, almost robotic way, never betraying any inner turmoil. In his book about Florida's death row, Among the Lowest of the Dead, The Washington Post's David Von Drehle wrote that on the day of the execution -- as protesters outside chanted, "Bloodsucker! Bloodsucker!" -- Graham summoned his frantic speechwriter, who assumed that the governor had changed his mind at the last minute. Instead, Graham stoically asked him to please draft a response to a constituent who had written Graham a letter to express outrage . . . that her son had been forced to pay fees to play in his school band.
The death penalty was by far the hottest issue in Florida then, and nicknames like "Bloody Bob" and "Governor Death" only enhanced Graham's standing. Von Drehle noted that Graham did seem to approve more executions and grant fewer clemencies during his reelection campaign, and even some Graham admirers suspect that politics helped send men to the chair. "I think he made a deal with the devil on the death penalty," Fiedler says. "He figured, whatever good he wanted to achieve in politics would be lost if he didn't give the people what they wanted. He was probably right."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
Speaking of the risk of terrorism, Sen. Bob Graham says. "The gun is still loaded."
(Photograph by Grant Delin)