Ballot Box

The Worst of Bob Graham

A troubling tale from his past. Is it true?

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

Charge: According to Among the Lowest of the Dead, a 1995 book by David von Drehle of the Washington Post, Graham used executions to boost his popularity while governor of Florida. The book says Graham was viewed as “weak and indecisive” when he came into office, and he used the death penalty “to show some spine, flex some muscle” in a state where 90 percent of the population approved of it. Graham signed more death warrants in 1982, the year he was up for re-election, than he did in his first three years in office combined. From 1982 on, he never exercised his power of clemency. The pace accelerated again in 1986 when Graham ran for the U.S. Senate. Ray Marky, a Florida assistant attorney general responsible for death penalty cases, told von Drehle that “nine months of Bob Graham running for senator nearly killed me.” In 2003, the Washington Post recalled, “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.” Tom Fiedler, a Miami Herald editor, told the Post, “Graham made a deal with the devil on the death penalty. He figured, whatever good he wanted to achieve in politics would be lost if he didn’t give the people what they wanted.”

Defense: Graham says he was just doing his duty. The Post says Graham argued in 2003 “that some crimes demand the ultimate sanction and that capital punishment is a deterrent.” Among those executed on his watch were spree killers, cop killers, child killers, and child rapist-murderers.

The Post adds that Graham “never gloated about executions or mentioned them in ads.” Graham told the Post, “Any time you sign a death warrant on another human being, you do it with a great deal of sadness.”

Von Drehle says Graham also developed a new way of preventing executions: On 20 occasions, instead of granting clemency, he refused to sign the necessary death warrant.

As to Graham’s alleged calculation that he wouldn’t get to pursue the rest of his agenda if he tangled with voters on the death penalty, Fiedler says Graham “was probably right.”