This Week: The Scariest Man in Washington
Hosted by Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 5, 2003; 1 p.m. ET
For years, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) was considered a responsible, mild-mannered -- even dull -- lawmaker. So, how and why has he suddenly become the freakout, red-alert candidate for president?
Michael Grunwald -- whose article "Running Scared" appeared in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine -- was online Monday, May 5 at 1 p.m. ET, to field questions and comments about the article and about the message of Bob Graham, which, in essence, is: No matter how frightened Americans are of terrorism, it isn't nearly frightened enough.
Grunwald, a Washington Post reporter, is on leave to write a book about the Florida Everglades.
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Michael Grunwald: Thanks for playing, everyone. I see there are already a bunch of questions waiting; feel free to fire away.
Pensacola, Fla.: Does your catchy title and "scary" theme damage the good qualities of a fine candidate to the Democratic electorate before he has a chance to sell himself in the Democratic electorate? His stand on terrorism is one shared by many of us, but that doesn't make us crazies, either.
And his moderate politics are shared by many Americans. Or does being "sexy" have to be a quality that the media can control over our candidates for national office?
Michael Grunwald: Thanks for your question. I didn't write the title, but I agree: It was catchy. I think the point was that when Bob Graham--mild-mannered, sober, responsible, sometimes a little dull--suddenly sounds like a screaming-banshee doom-and-gloomer, that's scary. If you read the story, terrorism experts don't think his stand on terrorism is crazy at all; they think it's common sense. That's what's so scary.
Ventura, Calif.: Why does Bob leave the swamp if it is so dangerous out there? Oh yeh, the terrorists are vacationing and educating themselves in his backyard.
Michael Grunwald: Well, I guess you're being snide, but actually, I think Senator Graham was pretty disturbed that so many of the 9/11 terrorists passed through Florida. When he got intelligence briefings about terrorists among us, I think he was less inclined to shrug it off.
Mt. Rainier, Md.: Okay, I'm scared now. Sen. Graham definitely scares me. I'm willing to believe that he is in earnest, responding to a threat that he sees. But he doesn't seem to understand what response to that threat would entail, if we acted on it in deadly seriousness. We would have a lock-down of our society, losing most if not all of our civil liberties. Since we haven't been willing to give up our liberties to prevent REAL deaths happening right now, from abuse of guns and drunken driving and violent spouses, then I do not see the reason to give them up on the off-chance that a violent group will carry out one of about 3 million scenarios to damage us. They have not yet killed as many people as we do monthly on our roads.
Michael Grunwald: Well, Senator Graham would say that a lockdown on civil liberties is not the only way to deal with the problem. He'd say the way to deal with the problem is to go on offense overseas, to strike at the terrorists where they live. And he's got a pretty expansive view of potential targets: With me, he talked about hitting terrorists in Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, etc. Iraq, he said, was not in his top 10. But he was also insistent that civil liberties are what makes America America, that you can't just rescind the Bill of Rights.
Greenbelt, Md.: Hi --
Thanks for your excellent article, it really helped my understand the mentality of Congress today.
I read last week that Congress is considering legislation that would grant the CIA and military the right to gather evidence and place wiretaps on people here in the U.S. I was amazed that Congress would allow civil liberties to be dismissed so readily.
Now, thanks to your article, I understand.
I find it humorous that only seven years ago, Congressmen were talking about "jack boot" Government agents in the aftermath of Waco. Now Congress could care less about our civil liberties.
Do you think Congress will strip us of all civil liberties before they're done?
Michael Grunwald: Thanks for the kind words. Again, though, I think Senator Graham would say there's plenty of room to go after terrorists here and abroad without tossing out the Constitution.
Washington, D.C.: The views expressed in your article by Sen. Graham and other terrorism experts contradict what Ive been reading lately: that Al Qaeda has been seriously weakened, that port security has significantly improved, that terrorists are now more likely to pull off small-scale attacks.
Specifically what sorts of large-scale attacks are Sen. Graham and others concerned about? Why specifically have you come to the conclusion that it is rational for individuals to leave Washington due to security concerns? Has the administration been withholding information about the risks we face? It's hard for residents in places like D.C. and New York to know how to rationally react to articles like this.
Michael Grunwald: That's an interesting point. I've seen those stories, too. I mentioned a bunch of Sen. Graham's scenarios in the article: a dirty bomb in a shipping container, poisoning a municipal water supply, blowing up a bridge, etc. It's also worth pointing out that Sen. Graham is not just worried about al Qaida; he's particularly concerned about Hezbollah; he's always quoting a CIA statement that they're the "A-Team" of terrorists. Port security has improved--Sen. Graham would probably want to take some credit for that--but the vast majority of the boxes coming into this country still go unexamined.
The administration absolutely withholds information about the risks we face. That's its job. If it made an announcement every time it heard about a threat, it wouldn't have any time to do anything else. But one point that several of Graham's associates made was that he's not so much scared about the things that only he knows; he's scared because he spends an awful lot of time thinking about the things we all know.
I still live in DC. Is that rational? Sometimes I wonder.
Tallahassee, Fla.: Do the Democrats have to nominate a candidate from the south, like Senator Graham, to have a chance at beating the incumbent? If so, does Graham's lack of the telegenic characteristics of say Edwards pose too large of a burden to become the front-runner?
Michael Grunwald: I'm not an expert on this stuff. Some of the Post reporters who are think that Graham might have the best chance of any Democrat to beat the incumbent--but that he's going to have a very tough time winning the nomination. He probably isn't as cute as John Edwards. That said, he's won every election he's ever entered; he had two successful terms as governor of the ultimate swing state, and he's been elected senator three times. He's got quite a resume.
Washington, D.C.: You mentioned the Senator's Post connection. Was this an advantage? Has The Post ever published a negative story on the Senator?
Michael Grunwald: Thanks for your question. For those who didn't read the story, Bob Graham's older half-brother, Phil Graham, was once the Post's publisher. Phil's son Don is now the CEO of our company. That's why we never say anything negative about Bob. No, I'm kidding. Don Graham has made it very clear that we should treat Bob like any other candidate. He didn't approve my story before it ran, or anything like that. I'm sure there will be conspiracy theorists out there, but the Post doesn't run that way.
Boulder, Colo.: Michael, You really seem to have it in for Graham. Wasn't there anything positive you could've said of him? Were you trying to be overly "fair" because of his connection to the Wash Post? Are you pulling for someone else? I don't think your article made YOU look very good as a reporter. It seemed more like an an essay for an application to the RNC.
Michael Grunwald: Well, at least someone thinks the Post has run a negative story about Bob Graham. I'm sorry you didn't like the piece, but I certainly don't have it in for him at all. I described him as honest, serious, thoughtful, successful, etc. Those seem like positive attributes to me.
Maryland: Did he ever run or considered being the governor of Florida? Seems so many Senators now were former governors, not the other way around.
Michael Grunwald: Senator Graham served two terms as Florida's governor, from 1978 to 1986. He left office even more popular than he was when he took office.
Tenleytown, Washington, D.C.: Mr. Grunwald: Even scarier than the text were the accompanying photographs, which gave Sen. Graham kind of the Old Testament prophet of doom look. It was hard to believe that the photos from the debate last weekend and the photos from the article depicted the same man. I frankly felt somewhat manipulated by those photographs. How closely did you work with the photographer in obtaining those shots?
Michael Grunwald: I'm embarrassed to admit that I don't even know who took the photos. I wasn't there.
Tallahassee, Fal.: Some people on the left are mistaking Senator Graham's vote against invading Iraq as a call for peace, while it was actually an assertion that we were invading the wrong territory. Do you find his advocation of preventative attacks on terrorists an endorsement of what others call the Cheney Doctrine?
Michael Grunwald: As I said in the piece, he does seem to support the basic tenets of the so-called Bush Doctrine: The U.S. should go after terrorists and the states that harbor and support them. He just didn't think Iraq fell into that category.
Cumberland, Md.: What does Sen. Graham stay in the Democratic Party? He seems like the odd man out and someone who would be more welcomed in the Republican party.
Michael Grunwald: I don't think that's true at all. He opposed Bush's tax cut. He's opposed Bush on Medicare and the environment. As for foreign affairs, I'm not sure his positions are particularly Democratic or Republican. Remember, during the 2000 campaign, Bush said he was opposed to nation-building. It was Gore who sounded much more willing to send American forces overseas; many Republicans opposed the CLinton administration's interventions in the Balkans.
Washington, D.C.: Isn't it scary that decision-makers in this country think that greater security can be attained by bombing the heck out of other countries without regard to international law? For me, actions like the ones Sen. Graham is suggesting offer breeding ground for terrorists and put us all in greater danger.
Michael Grunwald: Senator Graham is honest about this; he does not deny that bombing other countries might increase anger against Americans. That's why he opposed the war in Iraq; he thought it would increase anger against Americans without reducing any imminent threat of terrorism. But Senator Graham does believe that America will be safer if we go after terrorists, preferably with help from their host countries, but not necessarily. He pointed out that there are certainly less terrorists today than there were soldiers in the Soviet Army.
Gainesville, Fla.: You mentioned in your article that Graham's one foray into national politics was his leadership at the DSCC. Do you think it's relevant to note that he accepted the job when it was already obvious that Democrats were going to take a hit in the 1994 cycle and that, while there, he raised a then-record for Democratic Senate candidates?
Michael Grunwald: That's worth noting, although I don't think anyone thought the Democrats were going to take as much of a hit as they took in 1994.
Cottage City, Md.: What is the point of being afraid of a maybe? Any given day you could get run down by a red-light runner or gunned down by a crazy or get cancer from a hundred different from your smokes or diabetes from your sweets -- any given day you run the actuarial odds of impairing your life and dying. Americans haven't been scared into giving up nicotine or fat, when they can see the results in front of their own eyes, and they still cross the streets every day. What would be the point of being scared of an action that isn't even on the actuarial tables, in terms of probability?
Michael Grunwald: This is an excellent question. Bob Kerrey made some of the same points when I talked to him, and he works a few blocks from Ground Zero. It's true that Americans seem to be in deep denial over nicotine and fat. As I said in the story, denial is a powerful force on a planet where everyone eventually dies. But it still does seem like denial. Sen. Graham would say: Look, we know there are terrorists who want to kill us, and we know they can. That's reality. Sen. Kerrey's response was: Yeah, but so far, except for that one thing, they mostly haven't. (My response when I talked to Kerrey was: Yeah, but there was that one thing...)
Tallahassee, Fla.: With Senator Graham's almost single-minded focus on U.S. security lately, is there a possibility that opponents, both Democratic and Republican, can begin painting him as a "one trick pony?"
Michael Grunwald: I think he is concerned about that, and he's broaded his message lately. His fuller argument is: Bush has the wrong priorities. He's obsessed with Iraq when he should be focusing on terrorism. He's obsessed with tax cuts when he should be focusing on Social Security, Medicare, education, the environment and the deficit. We'll see if it flies...
Real things to be scared of...: The fact that DC school children aren't learning to read.
The fact that drunk drivers (and the court systems that prosecute these cases) still don't get it.
The fact that in Los Angeles the air is so dirty, you can actually see it.
The fact that more kids carry guns than library cards.
The fact that John Ashcroft is Attorney General.
Michael Grunwald: Well, some of us are scared of getting vaporized, too.
College Park, Md.: So Graham's the flavor of this week. Big deal. Do the Democrats have any serious candidates at this point? By serious I mean anyone who would actually run in opposition to the current administration. Which candidates (if any) have actually demonstrated opposition to the current junta?
Michael Grunwald: Uh, all of them?
Bladensburg, Md.: This is not about Sen. Graham in particular, but the prevailing climate. It feels a lot like the 50s when, as a child, I was taught to duck and cower under my desk. It was totally senseless as a response to a threat that did not exist, and yet a number of adults spent quite a bit of money "securing" themselves against the Godless Commies and their nuclear weapons.
Michael Grunwald: I don't know, dude. There were two very large buildings in downtown Manhattan that aren't there anymore. WOuldn't you say that the threat maybe exists at least a little?
Alexandria, Va.: Question about port security issues. Examining containers requires good logistics -- storage areas for containers before and after examination.
Given the sheer number of containers that come into and out of the U.S., and the limited "real estate" holding areas available at seaports, how feasible is it to check them all?
What would Senator Graham say about this? And, what does he think about the proposed trusted traveler program and the parallel trusted shipper program? Additionally, what is the status of air cargo examinations?
Finally, good job on the Army Corps of Engineers stories a few years ago. I wish you could have also looked at some of the waste fraud and abuse regarding the military programs, though.
Michael Grunwald: Thanks for the kind words; I figure I spent enough time kicking around the Corps, though.
The current thinking is that it's not feasible to check every container; they're trying to move more towards a "trusted shipper" program. The problem is, the volume of the freight is just so tremendous. So much of it comes from places where we can't be confident what's in the boxes. And until 9/11, there was hardly any port security. I mentioned in my piece that POrt Everglades used to be an open port; motorists used to drive through on their way to the beach. They're making progress, but I talked to Coast Guard, Customs and local law enforcement at the port; they'll tell you they're still vulnerable. The idea is to harden enough so that they're not the obvious target anymore...
Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: Is Sen Graham running for Vice President? I know candidates don't admit that, but he'd bring many great qualities to a ticket should he not garner the nomination.
Michael Grunwald: A lot of people think that. He says he's running for president. He hasn't ruled out running for Senate reelection yet. Dukakis, Clinton and Gore all considered him as a running mate--especially Clinton--and I suspect he'd be interested if it came to that. One of the great qualities he brings is that he's the most popular politician in Florida. Evidently people seem to think winning Florida is important these days.
Monterey, Calif.: How does U.S. support for Israel factor into Senator Graham's war on terrorism?
Michael Grunwald: Well, Sen. Graham has always been a strong supporter of Israel; most Florida politicians are. He's certainly more outspoken about Hezbollah and Hamas than most of his colleagues, who think those groups are more dangerous to Israel than to us. But I tried to point out that Sen. Graham is not considered a grandstander who goes on crusades for political reasons. His colleagues take him very seriously, and they take him at face value.
Cumberland, Md.: How much will his health be a factor in the campaign?
Michael Grunwald: Well, he's older than some of his competitors, and he did just have serious heart surgery. But his doctors say he's ok, and he looks ok. So I guess we'll see.
Springfield, Va.: Along with Dennis, Carol, and The Rev. Al, and probably Dr. Howard, Bob will likely be out of the race sometime next spring. Why such focus on a minor candidate? Shouldn't the press be giving as much info on those most likely to be around the longest?
Michael Grunwald: We were talking about doing this piece before Graham even mentioned that he was thinking about running. The idea was: here's this previously mild-mannered guy, put in charge of the intelligence committee, and suddenly he's screaming that the senate is going to have blood on its hands.
Also, for what it's worth, Graham has been underestimated before. He had 3 percent name recognition and 1 percent support when he entered the Democratic primary for governor in 1977; he ended up beating the lt. gov, the sec. of state, the attorney general, and a former gov.
Boulder, Colo.: [quasi personal remark]
Michael, I'm the one who sent the other note from Boulder. And I have this feedback to you. It just seems on the face of it to me that you are in fact supportive of Graham somewhat, based on what you're saying online today. And if that's so, then it seems like you might benefit from trying to see your article from the reading public's point of view in order to determine why the opinion seems universal among your readers that you were out to get the Senator, when in fact you are saying that you're not.
It's one thing to point out his alarming views, it's another to say he's an alarming person, for example. Somehow the line between these two points -- among others -- got blurry.
Michael Grunwald: Thanks for your note. I'm not supportive or unsupportive. My reporting reflected the bipartisan agreement that Sen. Graham is honest and serious and popular. I also mentioned that some people think he's kind of weird. As for opinion being universal among my readers that I'm out to get the senator, I think you're the only one who said that. Maybe one other.
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: Why running scared? Instead of being "reactive" as we often are, why not be "proactive" in defense of our country? Being proactive does not invite the question of being the "bully on the block!"
Michael Grunwald: I didn't choose the inside title "Running Scared" either; personally, I liked the cover title "The Scariest Man in Washington" better. In any case, Senator Graham would agree that we ought to be proactive.
Washington, D.C.: As a Democrat, why would the senator be interested in intelligence issues when liberal Democrats are anti-CIA?
Michael Grunwald: This is a kind of dopey question, but for the record: Graham is certainly one of the less liberal Democrats in the Senate. And he's not anti-CIA; however, he was arguing even before 9/11 that the CIA needs to rely more on human intelligence, and his bipartisan report (with his friend Porter Goss, a Republican who used to work for the CIA) on pre-9/11 intelligence failures was pretty harsh.
Austin, Tex.: Graham just might appeal to me because I want a thoughtful, but strong, proactive, and if need be, violent approach to terrorism. Bush and Co. have hopelessly alienated me with their tax cuts, religious fundamentalism, etc.
My question: Do you really think there are enough people like me out there to make a difference in '04?
Michael Grunwald: Well, Sen. Graham certainly hopes so.
Michael Grunwald: I'm outta time, folks. Sorry I didn't get to all your questions. Thanks for your interest. And lest I forget my most important webchat reponsibility: Hi Mom! Hi Dad!
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