Taking Stock of Bob Graham

Doodle sings:

"We have a friend in Bob Gra-ham,

That's what everybody's say-in,

All across the good ol' USA.

From the Atlantic to the Pacific,

We all say -- he's terrific.

That's why America needs

Bob Gra-ham to-day."

The Democrats in the large Iowa warehouse met the song with eerie silence, then nervous laughter and unsure applause. Florida Sen. Bob Graham -- who told the crowd of 500 that they could feel free to call him "Doodle," as his ten grandchildren do -- then walked off the stage to mingle with those who attended the June 8 rally for Democratic presidential candidates.

It was an awkward moment to cap off a rather rambling, ineffective speech. Instead of endearing voters, the canary act, which includes a CD titled Bob Graham Charisma Tour 2004, revived questions about the senator's sanity first raised in 2000, when his strange habit of peppering daily diary entries with ludicrously quotidian details became known. The New Republic magazine asked the question, or answered it, perhaps, in a June 11 article titled "Crazy Bob," which gave the presidential candidate this bit of indirect advice: "Someone needs to take Graham aside and gently explain that Americans like their politicians colorful, not crazy."

It's not just his singing and note-taking that has some thinking he's a loon. The conservative National Review Online recently ran a small piece headlined "Piling on Sen. Graham as a Nut" that claimed he'd become "unhinged in his rhetoric" concerning tax cuts.

And back in May, the Washington Post Magazine ran a cover story about Graham titled "The Scariest Man in Washington." Writer Michael Grunwald detailed a Senate floor speech Graham gave last October about the terror threat to the United States, during which his "cherubic face turned purple" and he "gesticulated like a manic third-base coach." Grunwald went on to compare him to a "screaming-banshee Chicken Little."

Graham may be a strange character, but he hasn't gone poppies; he's just going populist. It worked for him back in 1978 during his unlikely -- and wildly successful -- gubernatorial run. Long before Graham seemed to have gone crackers, he was busy playing a cracker. It wasn't false advertising; Graham was the real deal, a white, rural Florida native with a genuine Southern accent who knew how to handle a calf.

(He's now part cow himself, in fact. During his recent heart surgery, doctors replaced one of his heart valves with one from a Holstein cow. There's a song about it on the CD that includes the line: "Oh, I'll forever have a Black and White friend/ Close to my heart." Seriously.)

But there was always a hint of schizophrenia wafting in the air around him, since he was also Harvard-educated, very rich, and oh-so-plugged into Washington. (His late brother owned the Washington Post, and his nephew now runs it, for crying out loud). Yes, Doodle has a little dandy in him.

And he has combined the two poles of his nature as a perfect Florida political hybrid, a mix of the countrified and the cultured, the genuine and the gentrified, a fellow who can attract those living along Interstate 4 in the conservative heart of the state as easily as the die-hard Democrats along Interstate 95 in his native South Florida.

Considering this duality, it's no wonder Graham's life in office has been full of contradiction: He paints himself as a savior of the Everglades while maintaining a cozy relationship (worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions over the years) with its destroyer, Big Sugar. He courts doves by touting his vote against the Iraq War while supporting even more radical military strikes in Syria and Iran. He plays the nature lover who glorifies raw Florida, though his family business, the Graham Companies, has paved many square miles of wetlands, especially in Miami Lakes, the place he calls home. He adamantly opposes oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico while infuriating environmental groups with his strong backing of the nuclear energy industry.

In a bid for the rural vote, the 66-year-old Graham has been casting himself on the campaign trail as a "serious farmer." But he is, of course, more a Capitol Hill good old boy than a regular old country boy. His wealth alone, estimated at more than $8 million, would seem to preclude him from playing, with a perfectly straight face, the role of Everyman. And a close look at his financial disclosure forms for the past two years shows that his pursuit of money sometimes conflicts with his job as public servant. At times, it's hard to tell who really has a friend in Bob Graham, constituents or corporate interests.

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Bob Norman
Contact: Bob Norman