Bob Graham

Who is he kidding?

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Although the cast of the 2004 Democratic presidential campaign is pretty much set, the members of the troupe are still auditioning for the leading roles. Who will play the Front-Runner? The Populist Insurgent? The Serious Candidate Not Slick Enough To Win? But while the starring roles remain up in the air, the supporting players have settled comfortably into character. Al Sharpton has dutifully taken up the role that Alan Keyes played in the 2000 Republican campaign, that of the wisecracking sure loser whose entertaining attacks on the other party are more likely to garner him a cable TV show than a presidential nomination. Dennis Kucinich has signed on for a primary season as Gary Bauer (“little fellows, who pack a powerful punch but have no chance,” as the Washington Post’s Terry Neal put it). And Carol Moseley-Braun is the obvious choice for the year’s Quixotic Female Candidate. Now that Florida Sen. Bob Graham has formally declared his candidacy, to that trio you can add a fourth quadrennial archetype: The senator who enters the race with respect, then blows it all by running for president.

Joe Biden and Chris Dodd were rumored to be in the running for Graham’s slot, but they backed out, perhaps too intimidated to follow Orrin Hatch’s bravura performance from the last go-round or Dick Lugar’s from eight years ago. In their absence, the 66-year-old Graham has ably filled the gap. In what must be a presidential candidate first, he waited to officially kick off his campaign until after he had already appeared in one debate. The New York Times called his announcement speech “languorous and at times halting.” Pundits and fellow politicians describe his candidacy with the political handicappers’ equivalents of book-jacket blurbs that merely summarize the plot: “Mature!” “Executive experience!” “Hails from the fourth-largest state!” In the most recent New Hampshire poll, Graham trails Wesley Clark and Gary Hart—who aren’t even running.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Graham. When he was first elected to the Senate in 1986 after two successful terms as Florida governor, he was tabbed for greatness, a can’t-miss centrist from a large and growing state who was well-connected in Washington circles: He’s the half-uncle of Washington Post publisher Donald Graham (and as a 3-year-old, spat on Katharine Graham, according to her autobiography). “I think he’s going to be president of the United States someday,” then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell told the St. PetersburgTimes in 1991.

But Graham never distinguished himself in the Senate. Instead, he became a Floridian Al D’Amato, focused on the Everglades, highway funding, and constituent service. Three times—by Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore—he was passed over as a candidate for veep. Other than the fact that he was from Florida, Graham was notable for only two things before 9/11: His monthly “workdays,” a sort of Bring Your Senator to Work Day that he uses to stay in touch with voters by working alongside one for an eight-hour day, and his notebooks, in which he chronicles the minute-by-minute details of his daily life, from what he eats (“branola cereal with peach,” according to the Time magazine article that published a 1994 Graham diary) to what movies he rewinds (Ace Ventura, according to that same diary). On the Today show Wednesday, Graham defended his idiosyncrasy: “For me, it is a means of organization and discipline. And I guess my question is why more people in public office don’t do this.”

Of course, Graham isn’t running for president as an eccentric scribe. He’s running as a prophet of doom, made all the more credible by his perch on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Last October, he warned senators who ignore the threat of increased terrorism because of war with Iraq that “blood is going to be on your hands.” A few days later in a Washington Post op-ed, he declared that going to war against Saddam Hussein was “the equivalent of the Allies’ declaring war on Mussolini’s Italy but ignoring Hitler’s Germany.” Graham wants the United States to go after five terrorist organizations, in addition to al-Qaida, that “have a history of killing Americans, the ability to strike within the United States and the support of a country that possesses weapons of mass destruction”: the Abu Nidal Organization, Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Palestine Liberation Front. Although he opposed the war with Iraq, Graham has a history of supporting American military interventions abroad, including Gulf War I, Panama, and Haiti. He supports an Afghanistan-style coalition to take out Hezbollah in Syria. To top it off, last year he told the New York Times he believed that 9/11 could have been avoided.

This frontal assault on President Bush as soft on terrorism led the NewRepublic in January to call Graham a “surprisingly viable candidate.” And this past Sunday, the Washington Post Magazine proclaimed him “The Scariest Man in Washington”: “a kind of freakout candidate, a red-alert politician for a freakout nation.” But Graham’s kickoff campaign event downplayed the doomsaying in favor of familiar populism. “Co-workers” from Graham’s workdays stood on stage and clapped to the Alabama song “Forty Hour Week,” an ersatz Whitman ditty about working Americans with lyrics like “Working together like spokes inside a wheel/ They keep this country turning around.” An inarticulate but appealing truck driver, who noted that he’s a Rush Limbaugh-listening Republican who’s intrigued by school vouchers, helped introduce the candidate. Graham’s speech read like a cut-and-paste job from previous Democratic presidential speeches, sounding themes on public education, Social Security, Medicare, civil rights, and the environment. There was also a confusing refrain, in which Graham would periodically declare that something like “targeted tax credits” was “not just my promise—that’s the promise of America.”

It’s too bad. Bob Graham is knowledgeable, likable, and smart. But so’s Orrin Hatch. There’s a place for politicians like them. It’s called the U.S. Senate.