Publisher's Note — April 6, 2004, 6:16 pm

A Man Too Decent to Be Nominated

A version of this column originally ran in the Providence Journal on April 6, 2004.

I don’t know where Senator Bob Graham acquired his strong sense of propriety and proportion. His half-brother Philip, the late Washington Post publisher, famously had little. But chances are that Bob Graham’s was enhanced by an encounter with my rascally grandfather in the 1950s.

Graham who should be world-famous for having said essentially everything about Iraq and Al Qaida that Richard Clarke is now saying was a thirteen-year-old at the breakfast table in his family’s coral-rock farmhouse, northwest of Miami, with his father and my forebear, an insurance mogul named John D. MacArthur.

John D. was buying up tracts of Florida for development; Miami was growing, and he wanted to convert the Grahams’ dairy farm into houses.

Graham’s father, Ernest “Cap” Graham, asked his guest to reminisce about his early days at Bankers Life and Casualty. John D. told how he used to pick up the mail and open every letter. “I would put the contents of the mail in two piles,” Bob Graham described my grandfather as saying, during a recent interview in his Senate office. “One pile was those letters that had a check in them for premiums. . . . The other pile were those people who were writing in with claims; I would throw those into the trash, on the assumption that if people had a legitimate claim they would write back a second time.”

My grandfather very likely had a smirk playing on his mustachioed lip. Whether or not he actually threw claims away (Bankers was notoriously slow in paying them), he loved to shock “respectable” people a throwback to his relationship with his father, a sanctimonious evangelical preacher. Sometimes this odd manner worked socially, at least in a business sense, since con artists have always been loved in America. At the Grahams’, though, the act backfired.

“When Mr. MacArthur got in his car and left,” said Graham, “my dad who was a fairly quiet, unemotional person was mad as hell. And he said, ‘That man started out telling me he was a crook, and then proceeded to try to get me into what would be the biggest financial transaction of my life. What kind of a fool does he think I am?’ ”

Such, I imagine, was Senator Graham’s reaction when George W. Bush bluffed his way through 2002 selling “the war on terror” to the suckers in Congress (and when, last month, he showed the video of his smirking WMD pantomime to a crowd of smirking reporters).

On Oct. 9, 2002, Graham showing a doubletalk detector as acute as his father’s told his Senate colleagues that attacking Iraq was a foolish distraction from the pursuit of al-Qaida. “We arm for battle with a shield of ignorance at home,” he said. “By [invading Iraq], according to our own intelligence reports . . . we are going to be increasing the threat level against the people of the United States.”

As for the political chicanery that day in the Capitol, Graham said: “I recognize there are backroom deals made. This is what people have come together on: . . . We are locking down on the principle that we have one evil, Saddam Hussein. That, frankly, is an erroneous reading of the world. There are many evils out there, a number of which are substantially more competent particularly in their ability to attack Americans here at home than Iraq is likely to be in the forseeable future.”

Graham and twenty-two other courageous senators voted no on the war authorization, but no one seems to remember or care. Sadly, Graham’s reasoned response to 9/11 stands not as an inspiring political platform but as an object lesson in how doing the right thing in American politics rarely pays electoral dividends.

Witness the recent career of Sen. John Kerry, who did the wrong thing on the war and was rewarded with his party’s nomination. Graham’s presidential campaign hardly got started before it ran out of gas.

Exquisitely polite, Graham won’t be drawn into personal criticisms especially since he clearly wants to be Kerry’s running mate. But I could read between the lines when he answered my question about why the Senate had caved in to White House pressure and media hysteria: “There’s a tendency to say, ‘Well, based on what I know, I probably wouldn’t do this, but he must know something as president that I don’t know, and therefore I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.’ ”

Not to mention the tendency toward political cowardice. “I don’t know of anybody who was up for election in November of ’02 who voted against the Iraq war,” said Graham. That, he said, probably also influenced potential antiwar senators who weren’t running to vote yes the “people who didn’t want to have their reelection colleagues out there alone.”

It’s said that Graham is the most popular politician in Florida history, and I can see why. He presents the gracious, comforting thoughtfulness that one hopes to find in a father, as well as in a head of state. Even his worst political stance an appalling enthusiasm for the death penalty while he was Florida’s governor somehow drifted to the back of my mind in the face of so much amiable integrity.

So agreeable was Graham that he welcomed another antiwar hero, former senator and almost-president Eugene McCarthy, to our “interview.” My friend McCarthy was curious to meet Graham and argue the case for a third political party. Graham disagreed but, true to form, had kind words for Ralph Nader, whom he called “a very insightful, fine man.”

The presence of McCarthy, a cerebral Catholic, pointed up another thing I liked about Graham: that, like McCarthy, there is nothing sanctimonious about the senior senator from Florida. In an era polluted with Bible-thumping I’m-with-God political rhetoric, Graham’s language is refreshingly free of Christian dogma. A new biography, Quiet Passion (by S. V. Date), quotes him as saying daringly that “formal religion has not been a major part of my life.”

So why isn’t Graham the Democratic nominee for president? Conventional wisdom says he’s too quiet, that he doesn’t campaign with fire. For his part, Graham blames a heart-valve replacement, which took him out of the crucial period when Howard Dean began to take off with the anti-war crowd.

“While I was recovering Howard Dean was capturing the issue [the Iraq war], which he hadn’t actually voted on,” Graham said. “I sometimes wonder at night, if I had not had that requirement to detour through the surgical room, if things might have turned out different.”

To critics of Graham’s campaign style, he says, “my sister-in- law [the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham] used to say the essential element to run for president is passion that you’ve got to really feel that you stand for something more than your own personal ego or aggrandizement. I had not had that passion before. But these experiences surrounding my [past chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee] led me to conclude that [Bush] is not serving the people with honesty, with candor, with intelligence . . . in the IQ sense. That is what fired my passion to run.”

President Bush certainly has no passion that I can discern; neither does he have any heart or decency. In large measure, I think that Bob Graham lost for the same reason Dean did: Most voters don’t really want a decent man as president.

They’d rather sell the farm to the likes of my grandfather.

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