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Bob Graham was a real public servant, a species nearly extinct in Florida


I’m sitting there with Bob Graham eating navy bean soup. He suddenly starts freestyling country songs, composing between spoonfuls.

This was in the dining room of the United States Senate.

Senators sitting nearby look up from their plates of fried chicken and meatloaf but just for a minute. Bob Graham singing wasn’t particularly unusual. The guy was always singing.

His campaign fight song still lives in my head: “Bob Graham is a Cracker; Be a Cracker backer … .”

God, I’ll miss him.                                       .

Bob Graham — two-term governor, three-term U.S. senator — was always thinking, too, mostly about Florida, how to preserve Florida’s waters and save the Everglades, how to improve K-12 education, how to promote civic engagement, how to alleviate poverty, how to bring our colleges and universities into national prominence, and how to continue the project begun by Govs. LeRoy Collins and Reubin Askew to drag Florida out of the Jim Crow South into a New South of social justice and opportunity.

You can read the scores of obituaries for details of his extraordinary life in government — his co-sponsorship of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, his chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee, his opposition to the Iraq War, and his work on the BP Horizon oil spill commission to name just a few — but my favorite thing about him was that puckish, self-satirizing sense of humor.

Back when Florida’s governors were decent human beings and good sports, they would appear at the Capital Press Corps Skits, a charity event at which reporters would make merciless fun of the elected officials they covered.


Bob Graham loved the Skits, cheerfully ridiculing the press — and sending himself up, too.

Bob Graham takes part in the Florida Capitol Press Corps Skits. Source: State Library and Archives of Florida

The time he donned a truly terrible tropical shirt and leapt onstage to sing with Jimmy Buffet was good, but his best performance was in 1986, when he made a grand entrance wearing mirrored shades and a tropical generalissimo uniform, flanked by Florida A&M’s famous Marching 100, and declared himself Governor-for-Life.

I have a photograph from that night: The governor in his spurious medals and sash, me with big 1980s hair, both of us with our mouths open, talking nineteen to the dozen.

Can you imagine any of the rage-driven, paranoid bullies running this state laughing at themselves like this? The insecure, personality-challenged current occupant of the governor’s mansion cannot stand even the mildest mockery.

But then, Ron DeSantis is a moral and social pipsqueak who doesn’t actually like people. Bob Graham adored people.

It didn’t matter who they were. He couldn’t get enough of them.

He even liked the press. He and his gracious and funny wife, Adele, used to invite reporters to the mansion for dinners and parties. He’d spar with us, argue with us, and, of course, sing to us.

Daniel Robert Graham grew up on the edge of the Everglades, back when Miami was pronounced “Miamuh,” an unsung, underpopulated part of the state regarded by most as an irredeemable swamp.

He was a bright striver and a charmer, raised with a sense of service. His mother, Hilda Simmons, was a teacher; his father, Ernest “Cap” Graham, ran a herd of dairy cattle and became one of the state senators who repealed Florida’s poll tax.

‘Best All Around Boy’

Bob Graham was a 4-H star and — naturally — his high school’s student body president. The Miami Herald named him Dade County’s “Best All Around Boy.”

Graham would be the first to acknowledge his privilege: His older brother, Philip, became the publisher and owner of the Washington Post as well as a confidant of John F. Kennedy; Philip’s wife, Katharine, oversaw the paper when it broke the Watergate stories; his other brother, Bill, helmed the Graham Cos., which built Miami Lakes, Florida’s first “new town.”

Bob Graham during workday as a pilot for the Air National Guard, Jacksonville. Source: State Library and Archives of Florida

Yet he was fascinated by lives very different from his own. Maybe this was the impetus behind his famous “workdays” — that and first-rate campaign instincts. Graham bussed tables, picked tomatoes, hefted garbage cans, bellhopped, cleared brush, taught school, packed fish, cut hair, flew planes, and set up rigging and camera equipment as a grip on the 1983 Burt Reynolds movie “Stick.”

He understood regular people because he talked to them all the time; he understood regular jobs because he did them — more than 400 of them.

In 2010, five years after he’d retired from the Senate, he decided he wanted to see my office at FSU before we went to lunch. God knows why: The Williams Building is not exactly an architectural masterpiece.

I met him in the university guest parking lot, and what should have been a two-minute walk to my office took more like 45 minutes. He stopped every student and professor we encountered. Some of them knew who he was; some (undergraduates who weren’t born when he served as governor) hadn’t a clue. He didn’t care: He interviewed each one. Where are you from? What are you majoring in? What are you teaching? Why did you choose FSU? What are you reading?


“What are you reading?” was his favorite question. Sometimes he’d call me up and ask what books impressed me lately. I knew he was recording every title and author in one of his little color-coded spiral notebooks (green for spring, red for summer, yellow for fall, blue for winter) which he kept in his pocket.

He filled more than 4,000 of those notebooks, now housed at the University of Florida, documenting his life from 1977, when he was a member of the Florida Senate, detailing everyone he met, every idea presented to him, as well as what he had for breakfast and when he took a video back to Blockbuster.

Some in the punditocracy suggested the notebooks were a “weird quirk” that might have caused Al Gore to pass over Graham as a VP choice in 2000. Maybe.

But if Gore had chosen Graham, he might have won Florida.

Just think: No spurious weapons of mass destruction, no disastrous invasion of Iraq.

I never saw the notebooks as eccentric. He was a politician, with one eye on the next election and one eye on history, aware that future scholars would be glad to know who he spoke with during key events such as the day terrorists (who were nothing to do with Iraq, of course) flew planes into New York’s twin towers.

But he was a writer, too. Observing the world, taking notes, making lists — that’s what writers do.


Graham wrote all the time: op-eds, articles, essays, books. Along with top aide Chris Hand, he published “America: The Owner’s Manual” on how to make government work for you. He documented his Workdays and authored “Intelligence Matters,” an insider account of how U.S. spy agencies failed to take al-Qaeda threats seriously and the government’s refusal to point the finger at Saudi Arabia.

He even produced a spy thriller, “Keys to the Kingdom,” drawn from his deep knowledge of American espionage and top security clearance.

There’s a lot of sex. When I mentioned to his wife I’d read a draft of the novel, she rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, goodness. Those scenes …. .”

There’s also a character, a strangely familiar senator from Miami, though he’s killed off early in the novel.

Graham thought murdering his alter ego in print was funny.

The contrast between his career and that of our current regime could not be greater — or sadder. Bob Graham did not spend his days trying to find people to demonize and destroy. He never punched down, never attacked the vulnerable. He believed passionately in free expression, science, honest debate, equality, kindness.

He was a real public servant, a species nearly extinct in Florida: truly our Best All Around Floridian.

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