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News / Nation & World

Bob Graham, ex-U.S. senator and Florida governor, dies at 87

By Associated Press
Published: April 16, 2024, 8:22pm

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Former U.S. Sen. and two-term Florida Gov. Bob Graham, who gained national prominence as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks and as an early critic of the Iraq war, has died. He was 87.

Graham’s family announced the death Tuesday in a statement posted on X by his daughter Gwen Graham.

“We are deeply saddened to report the passing of a visionary leader, dedicated public servant, and even more importantly, a loving husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather,” the family said.

Graham, who served three terms in the Senate, made an unsuccessful bid for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, emphasizing his opposition to the Iraq invasion.

But his bid was delayed by heart surgery in January 2003, and he was never able to gain enough traction with voters to catch up, bowing out that October. He didn’t seek re-election in 2004 and was replaced by Republican Mel Martinez.

Graham was a man of many quirks. He perfected the “workdays” political gimmick of spending a day doing various jobs from horse stall mucker to FBI agent and kept a meticulous diary, noting almost everyone he spoke with, everything he ate, the TV shows he watched and even his golf scores.

But he closed the notebooks to the media during his short-lived presidential bid on the advice of his campaign that was concerned coverage of the contents could become a distraction or potentially embarrass the candidate.

Graham said the notebooks were a working tool for him and he was reluctant to describe his emotions or personal feelings in them.

“I review them for calls to be made, memos to be dictated, meetings I want to follow up on and things people promise to do,” he said.

Graham was among the earliest opponents of the Iraq war, saying it diverted America’s focus on the battle against terrorism centered in Afghanistan. He was also critical of President George W. Bush for failing to have an occupation plan in Iraq after the U.S. military threw out Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Graham said Bush took the United States into the war by exaggerating claims of the danger presented by the Iraqi weapons of destruction that were never found. He said Bush distorted intelligence data and argued it was more serious than the sexual misconduct issues that led the House to impeach President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s. It led him to launch his short, abortive presidential bid.

“The quagmire in Iraq is a distraction that the Bush administration, and the Bush administration alone, has created,” Graham said in 2003.

During his 18 years in Washington, Graham worked well with colleagues from both parties, particularly Florida Republican Connie Mack during their dozen years together in the Senate.

As a politician, few were better. Florida voters hardly considered him the wealthy Harvard-educated attorney that he was.

Graham’s political career spanned five decades, beginning with his election to the Florida House of Representatives in 1966.

He won a state Senate seat in 1970 and then was elected governor in 1978. He was re-elected in 1982. Four years later, he won the first of three terms in the U.S. Senate when he ousted incumbent Republican Paula Hawkins.

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Graham remained widely popular with Florida voters — winning re-election by wide margins in 1992 and 1998 when he carried 63 of 67 counties. In that latter election, he defeated Charlie Crist, who later served as a Republican governor from 2007 to 2011.

“He blew me out of the water, and I came to know even more so why during the course off the campaign,” Crist said Tuesday night. “I learned to respect him even more than I already had, and love him for the good, decent man that he was.”

Crist, who has since switched parties and most recently served as a U.S. representative, said Graham was an influence on him.

“I always felt that when he was governor, that he was trying to govern for the people of Florida — not in any way political or partisan — and I took that to heart and tried to, in some small way, emulate it,” Crist said.

Even when in Washington, Graham never took his eye off the state and the leadership in Tallahassee.

When Gov. Jeb Bush and the Republican-controlled Legislature eliminated the Board of Regents in 2001, Graham saw it as a move to politicize the state university system. He led a successful petition drive the next year for a state constitutional amendment that created the Board of Governors to assume the regents’ role.

Daniel Robert Graham was born Nov. 9, 1936, in Coral Gables, where his father, Ernest “Cap” Graham, had moved from South Dakota and established a large dairy operation. Young Bob milked cows, built fences and scooped manure as a teenager. One of his half-brothers, Phillip Graham, was publisher of The Washington Post and Newsweek until he took his own life in 1963, just a year after Bob Graham’s graduation from Harvard Law.

Graham was president of the student body at Miami Senior High School and attended the University of Florida, graduating in 1959.

In 1966 he was elected to the Florida Legislature, where he focused largely on education and health care issues.

Graham got off to a shaky start as Florida’s chief executive, and was dubbed “Gov. Jello” for some early indecisiveness. He shook that label through his handling of several serious crises.

As governor he also signed numerous death warrants, founded the Save the Manatee Club with entertainer Jimmy Buffett and led efforts to establish several environmental programs.

Graham pushed through a bond program to buy beaches and barrier islands threatened by development and started the Save Our Everglades program to protect the state’s water supply, wetlands and endangered species.

Graham also was known for his 408 “workdays,” including stints as a housewife, boxing ring announcer, flight attendant and arson investigator. They grew out of a teaching stint as a member of the Florida Senate’s Education Committee and then morphed into a campaign gimmick that helped him relate to the average voter.

“This has been a very important part of my development as a public official, my learning at a very human level what the people of Florida expect, what they want, what their aspirations are and then trying to interpret that and make it policy that will improve their lives” said Graham in 2004 as he completed his final job as a Christmas gift wrapper.

After leaving public life in 2005, Graham spent much of his time at a public policy center named after him at the University of Florida and pushing the Legislature to require more civics classes in the state’s public schools.

Graham was one of five members selected for an independent commission by President Barack Obama in June 2010 to investigate a massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that threatened sea life and beaches along several southeastern Gulf states.

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