Sunday, April 21, 2024

Senator Bob Graham, R.I.P.



The Greatest Book a Politician Ever Wrote

The late Bob Graham’s book is everything politics should be.

Sen. Bob Graham unloads bags from a USAir jet on the tarmac at Tampa International Airport.

The bellhop at the Orlando hotel delivered a large red bag to the Cypress Penthouse, where he was met at the door by a woman in a green-and-white dress with a green-and-white “Shevin for Governor” sash around her neck. It was Myrna Shevin, the wife of Florida’s attorney general, and she did not look happy. Because the bellhop was one of her husband’s opponents in the 1978 gubernatorial Democratic primary.

That was Bob Graham, a young state senator from Miami with a quirky campaign gimmick: He was spending 100 days working 100 different jobs done by ordinary Floridians. This was the first time the undercover job he was doing for the day had bumped into the public job he was seeking for four years. He sheepishly tried to explain the coincidence, but a voice from another room shushed him: “The General is still sleeping!” So he left the bag and tiptoed back to the elevator.

There was no tip,” he wrote.

That’s a story from Workdays, Graham’s campaign book about his stints as a pooper-scooper at a horse auction, an orderly at a nursing home, a mechanic at a Toyota dealership and other humble jobs he worked on his way to the governorship. He won the race in a massive upset and went on to serve two terms as Florida’s governor and three terms as its U.S. senator. He also served more than 400 days working in his constituents’ jobs. After Graham died Tuesday at age 87, President Joe Biden celebrated the workdays in a statement, noting that his former Senate colleague “knew it matters to walk a mile in other folks’ shoes.”

Workdays is my favorite book by a politician, partly because Graham was probably my favorite politician — nerdy, funny, curious, courteous, compassionate, widely respected and magnificently weird. But it’s mostly because Workdays is an amazing glimpse into what politics ought to be.

For starters, it must be said that the workdays were a wildly successful political stunt, proof that a chipmunk-cheeked, squeaky-voiced Miami liberal with a Harvard Law degree and a wealthy family didn’t think he was above doing literal dirty work. Graham was polling at 3 percent in a crowded field when he declared, far behind the attorney general whose bag he carried, but his stints making sandwiches, gutting mullet and doing other menial labor helped propel him to the governor’s office. It was his signature man-of-the-people move throughout his political career, and while many other politicians have tried to copy it — including his daughter Gwen, when she ran for governor in 2018 — nobody ever recaptured his magic.

But the workdays were never just political performance art. They really worked because Graham really worked. The cover of Workdays shows Graham gritting his teeth and spraying sweat as he struggled to wrap a steel cable around a logpile; he didn’t look like a very talented “skidder operator,” the job he was doing for a North Florida lumber company, but he was clearly trying his very hardest. Lots of politicians talk about “the dignity of work.” Not so many back it up by picking tomatoes and shoveling manure.

Graham always put in a full day on whatever job he was doing, and his genuine respect for his co-workers and their craft comes across on every page. He spent his day at the nursing home feeding and bathing patients and changing their soiled bedsheets with Johnny Denton, “a 33-year-old Black man of Santa Claus shape and ebullience” who earned $2.45 an hour. He was clearly moved by Denton’s dedication to his patients, by his belief that “these old folks must be good, because God let them live so long,” by the care he took to fold the seams in the sheets under the bed so nobody would get sores.

“He regularly checked each room to see if any patients needed assistance or required a change of bedding,” Graham wrote. “He was almost compulsive about keeping the beds clean and quickly dispatching any soiled articles to the laundry.”

Graham knew a bit about compulsive behavior; he famously jotted down the mundane details of his daily existence in his omnipresent little notebooks. But another thing that Workdays makes clear is how he used his obsessive attention to detail for the wonky benefit of his constituents. He wasn’t just working; he was learning.

He discovered as a mechanic that Florida’s auto inspection system was a joke. The cop he shadowed to a murder scene told him about bureaucratic snags in the professional training system for law enforcement. At a state mental hospital, he found that one woman staffer on the overnight shift was in charge of 60 male patients. And when he spent a couple non-workdays learning about the lives of the unemployed in Florida, he was appalled to find that the restrooms in a state unemployment office were for employees only, and that Spanish-speaking applicants for food stamps were required to bring their own translator.

But the best thing about Workdays, and the thing that made Graham such an extraordinary politician and public servant, is the evident joy he derived from the exotic parade of humanity he met on the job. He recounted how a tourist who saw him cleaning sponges in Tarpon Springs wondered aloud if he could speak English. He played some basketball with a “stubby 5-foot-2” mental patient with “thick glasses and air of total concentration” who finally admitted, after some wildly erratic shooting: “I can’t see the damned hoop!” He took a lunch break at a food truck run by a Cuban whose “broken English seemed to improve as it grew more profane”; when one customer suggested the sandwiches were three days old, the Cuban “told him, without consulting a road map, where he could go.”

You don’t have to be fascinated by people to be effective in the political arena, but it helps. I happen to believe, and I’m not alone, that Al Gore could have won Florida and changed history in 2000 if he had chosen Graham as his running mate. I also believe, and on this I may be alone, that if Graham hadn’t suffered some heart issues in 2003, he might have beaten John Kerry for the Democratic nomination and ousted George W. Bush. He was a centrist swing-state Intelligence Committee chair who opposed the war in Iraq on the grounds that it was crippling the war on terror.

And he was a people person, even if he was a bit of a weirdo. Gore and Kerry have a lot of talents, but one reason both lost was that neither is a people person.

In any case, the real lesson of Workdays, and of Bob Graham’s old-fashioned life of earnest service, is about the value of an honest day’s work — in a fertilizer plant or a sandwich shop or a high public office. When he was cleaning sponges in hydrogen peroxide in Tarpon Springs, his boss noticed his damp pants and told him a Greek proverb: You’ve got to wet your bottom to eat fish. In other words, you’ve got to wade into life to get something out of it. It was an observation, Graham realized, that “sort of underlines the reason I’m doing these workdays.”

That time, there was a tip.

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