Ballot Box

The Best of Bob Graham

The bravest thing he ever did.

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, and worldviews. This series assesses the story that supposedly shows each candidate at his best. Here’s the one told by supporters of Bob Graham—and what they leave out.

The story: “Graham has staked out a position as a fierce critic of White House plans to attack Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. Iraq is ‘the wrong target’ in the war on terrorism, Graham said in an impassioned speech moments before the Senate early Friday gave President Bush sweeping powers to attack Iraq. … ‘I predict we will live to regret this day,’ declared Graham, who is co-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and privy to a gamut of classified information on global terrorism. Graham said it would be ‘irresponsible’ to go to war with Iraq before confronting more imminent terrorist threats to the United States. … Graham, a detail-minded master of policy, is at the nexus of information on when and where terrorists might strike again, and his recent warnings have been expressed with earnest conviction. His midnight appeal against the Iraq resolution was no exception.” (Miami Herald, Oct. 12, 2002)

Reality check: Two mystiques have developed around Graham’s opposition to the Iraq war. One is that he knows something awful that the rest of us don’t know because he’s “privy” to secrets. But Graham has never clarified what those secrets are. He can’t be faulted for refusing to divulge classified information. But he also can’t be credited with knowing something when he provides no way to verify that this something exists.

The other mystique is that Graham has opposed the war with a clear voice. It’s true that his position hasn’t changed. But his way of framing it does change, depending on the audience. For example, when he addressed the liberal Children’s Defense Fund on April 9, 2003, Graham emphasized his opposition to the war: “I voted against the resolution to authorize the president to use force against Iraq. I did so because I thought the war against Iraq would make us less secure.” Instead, Graham proposed to focus on al-Qaida: “[Our] priorities should be to eliminate the shadowy group of international terrorist organizations that killed almost 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11th.”

But on May 4, addressing a more conservative audience on Fox News Sunday, Graham affirmed that instead of targeting Iraq, he would pursue “military, intelligence and law enforcement [action] in highly urbanized areas” of countries that sheltered Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and other terrorists groups. He specifically faulted U.S. failure to “take out” Hezbollah training camps “in Syria and Lebanon.” “That is a goal that I share, but it was first enunciated on September the 20th by President Bush,” said Graham.