Fifteen Questions With Bob Graham

The view from a Mather penthouse

He’s a Jimmy Buffett fan, he’s got 10 grandchildren, and he’s living large in Mather penthouse. Oh yeah, he was also a governor, senator, and presidential candidate. Florida Democrat Bob Graham, now a fellow at the Institute of Politics, answered 15 questions last week about the Democratic Party, the White House tennis court, Larry Summers, and today's hot ambassadorships (hint: not Azerbaijan).

1.


Fifteen Minutes: A number of Mather students say they now take the shuttle instead of walking, with hopes of running into you. Do you feel like a celebrity here at Harvard?

Bob Graham: My wife and I feel extremely fortunate to be here and extremely fortunate to be staying at Mather House. [The phone rings. Graham converses with a producer friend about the film adaptation of Graham’s recent book, “Intelligence Matters.” The senator asks, “How are tickets for ‘Hairspray’ this week?” The reply seems promising.] The people are great. I’ve had some of the best conversations since I’ve been here on the elevator with students.

2.

FM: Is there any chance you’ll host a study break in your Mather Tower penthouse?

BG: I was not aware of that tradition, but maybe so.

3.

FM: What three words best describe President Summers?

BG: Smart...um. I might press you for more than three words.

FM: Three sentences?

BG: He has a depth of diverse experience. He deeply wants to be an effective president of Harvard. Like most people starting out any job that they care about and are experiencing for the first time, he’s doing some learning on the job.

4.

FM: Three words to describe President Bush?

BG: I won’t comment on his intellectual level. You can form your own opinion on that. I think that like President Summers he very much wants to do a good job as president, but has fallen under the influence of some people whose judgment he respects and whose judgment in a string of occasions has not proven to be very wise.

5.

FM: Do you secretly hope a former colleague of yours will become president, so you can be friends with the president?

BG: If former colleague means former Senate colleague, well, that has not been a very likely path to the presidency. If the question is, ‘Do I hope that somebody gets elected president with whom I’ve had a personal relationship,’ then the answer is ‘Sure.’ You never can tell when you’ll want to use the tennis court.

6.

FM: True or false: the Democrats would have won Florida and the election had you been John Kerry’s running mate.

BG: I don’t know. Whereas Gore quote “lost” Florida—although I will go to my grave very suspicious of that—by less than 600 votes, Kerry lost it by two or three hundred thousand, and whether the vice presidential candidate could have made that much difference I’ll never know.

7.

FM: The Kerry campaign printed Kerry-Graham posters and bumper stickers in case John Edwards declined the vice presidential candidacy. Did you manage to get your hands on any of these?

BG: We have some posters.

8.

FM: You are well known for keeping a daily log of your activities, having filled up around 4,000 small notebooks so far.

BG: 2,200.

9.

FM: Thank you for correcting me, 2,200. You’re kind of like a blogger who arrived before his time. Do you read any blogs regularly?

BG: No, but I’d guess I’d say I have a curiosity about them. This habit came from my dad. He was in the cattle business and he used to always carry a notebook in case he saw a sick cow or broken fence, so that he’d remember to get somebody to go take care of it. When I started running for governor in 1977 I was being overwhelmed with information and so at that point I took this habit and tried to organize it on a more consistent basis. [He pulls a petite blue log from his pocket.] Here’s the one I’m using now. Numbered 10/05 A, which means it’s October 2005 and this is the first notebook I’ve used this month.

10.

FM: When North Carolina Paper Co., the company that made the notebooks, went out of business, you reportedly bought their supply.

BG: I don’t know if that’s true. I know that we’ve gotten these notebooks from some place in North Carolina, but there’s no reference to the producers [examining his notebook]. We do have several hundred stacked away for future use. [Picks up a stack of 72 stacked plastic-wrapped notebook.] These came up from Florida yesterday, so I’ve probably got an adequate supply for the next few months. I keep the notebooks in four different colors, which in my mind relates to the seasons of the year. I’m now going to give you an IQ test. What season will this be [holds up blue notebook]?

FM: Winter.

BG: Now what notebook will I use next?

FM: Um, spring...perhaps a green one?

BG: That’s right. Then summer is red and fall used to be brown, but they stopped making brown so I shifted to yellow. It’s not unusual that I might have three or four notebooks on my desk at any one time. I can tell what the sequence of the books is just by looking at the color.

11.

FM: During your last campaign, the media hounded you for entries in your log that detailed your watching and rewinding “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.” Do you like silly movies? We hear you wanted to see Napoleon Dynamite.

BG: No. I have to say I was very irritated about that. It was “Time” magazine, and they had asked for some specific dates, and I accommodated and gave them the notebooks. They ended up picking the day that my second daughter was going to have a baby. She came over to our house and she wanted to watch “Ace Ventura.” I said sure, so we got it and watched it. I did not consider that to be bizarre behavior.

12.

FM: You’re leading a discussion group at the IOP called “Making Democracy Work For You.” Although you weren’t elected president, would you still say democracy worked for you?

BG: Oh yeah, very much. My thesis is that democracy and citizenship are more than just voting. In fact I think we actually overemphasize voting to the point that many people come to the conclusion if I’ve voted I’ve punched my citizenship ticket for the next couple years.

13.

FM: In your race for governor in 1978, many of your supporters dubbed themselves “Graham crackers.” Sylvester Graham, inventor of the Graham cracker, believed—and I quote the Chicago Reader—“excessive carnal exercise would cause indigestion, headache, feebleness of circulation, pulmonary consumption, spinal diseases, epilepsy, insanity, and early death of offspring, among other things. He thought men should remain virgins until age 30 and then should make love only once a month.” What’s your take?

BG: Well, I knew something about the history of the graham. The grain that is called graham was originally harvested to make loaves of bread for people in insane asylums, because it was supposed to have some kind of a quieting influence. It’s not quite clear whether my last name Graham derives from the grain—that is, the people who happened to harvest or forest that grain, or whether it was the other way around.

14.

FM: Have you ever lost an election?

BG: No. I ran in 11 different races, some of those were more than one election because of primaries. When I ran for governor there was first primary, second primary, and then the election.

15.

FM: Do you have aspirations to run for public office again?

BG: I don’t believe in answering any question by saying never because life is too uncertain. But I cannot foresee a circumstance in which I’d run for public office again. I feel very content with my life today, and I’m excited about what I’m going to be doing in the foreseeable future. Maybe if the next president is a friend of mine, I’ll become ambassador to the Bahamas.

FM: That would be a good job.

BG: The best job would be ambassador to Barbados, for two reasons. First he’s got a great house. And two, he’s not just ambassador to Barbados, he’s ambassador to about five or six smaller English-speaking countries in the East Caribbean. So if you don’t like the beach in Antigua, you can go to Granada.