Former Florida Governor and U.S. Senator, Bob Graham is a public servant for the ages. In his four decades of elected public service and over a decade of citizen political involvement, Bob Graham has tirelessly fought for the citizens of Florida across a spectrum of issues including education, the environment, the elderly, water conservation, civic engagement and more.
Born and raised on a dairy farm in South Florida, Graham jokes that he was born into politics attending his father's political rallies while still in the womb and being born on November 9, 1936, one week after his father was elected to the Florida Senate.
After graduating from Harvard Law School, Graham returned to his home in what is now Miami Lakes and won a seat in the Florida House of Representatives. A lifelong Democrat, Graham was part of a progressive group of Democrats who focused on civil rights, the environment, public education and more. Those same principles endured and even guided Graham as he served as the 38th governor of Florida from 1979 to 1987 and a United States Senator from 1987 to 2005.
A signature element of his 1978 gubernatorial campaign was Graham's work days during which he trained and worked 100 ordinary jobs, laboring at everything from changing bedpans and cleaning invalids in a nursing home to wielding blowtorches as a steelworker and going without sleep as a long-haul trucker. Graham continued the workdays as governor and then as a U.S. Senator, working more than 400 workdays in his political career.
As a U.S. Senator, Graham focused on domestic issues like Everglades restoration, immigration and off-shore drilling and was considered a leading expert on foreign policy and intelligence. During his last term, he was named chairman on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In 2010, Senator Graham served as Co-Chair of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. Graham's passion for public service is evident in his work with the Bob Graham Center for Public Service, which serves as a training ground for the next generation of Sunshine State leaders.
Graham has been married to his wife, Adele for nearly 60 years. They have four children and 11 grandchildren, with whom they enjoy spending their retirement. Their daughter, Gwen Graham, is following in her father's footsteps - she is running for Governor of Florida in the 2018 elections.
Coming of Age had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Bob Graham about his upbringing, his accomplishments, and the importance of public service.
COA: A lot of people know about your political achievements and we will talk about those, but first, I wanted to know a little bit about your upbringing. I understand you grew up on a cattle farm in south Florida. What was your boyhood like?
BG: Well, if I could start a little earlier than that even, my mother whose name was Hilda Simmons was born in Freeport in Walton County and grew up in DeFuniak Springs. Her father was a country doctor. As a teenager, automobiles were still in their initial stages. She used to be the one who cranked the car and was the amateur mechanic for her father when he needed to get to his patients who frequently lived in remote rural areas of the Florida panhandle. She married my father in 1936. My dad's first wife had passed away from cancer and they had three children. The understanding was that my mother would raise the three children and they wouldn't have any children together. Well, that lasted about 40 days. She got pregnant and I was the happy result of that. My father was in the cattle business and was having a lot of difficulty. Primarily, he was in the dairy business and later he got into the beef cattle operation. He was having a lot of trouble with a group in Hialeah that was beating up his truck drivers, stealing milk and doing other things like that. He came to the conclusion that the only way to deal with that corruption problem was to run for the state senate at a time when the legislature had virtually complete control over all local government. He was elected and my mother said my political instincts came from her spending her whole pregnancy going to political rallies - I got a womb affliction for politics. Anyway, dad was elected and he served for eight years. One of the things he did was abolish the city of Hialeah, which was where most of the corruption was located. Then, he reestablished the city of Hialeah. He named the mayor and all the members of the city council in order to ensure they were honest people and they cleaned up the corruption in Hialeah. That was one of his proudest accomplishments. I grew up in a family that was both in the cattle business and in politics. By the time I was college age, the town had grown out close to our dairy pasture and we decided to try to develop our land as a new town, which is an English-Scandinavian design concept where you develop a total community for people to live, work, and have their religious, educational and commercial activities. So, we have been working on the new town, which is called Miami Lakes, since 1962 and we're very proud of it.
COA: So would you say that's the first planned community in Florida or were there others before that?
BG: There were others. For instance, not far from Miami Lakes there's one of the earliest planned communities in Florida called Coral Gables, but we are one of the late 20th century new towns. We are one of the newest and probably one of the largest.
COA: As a student in high school you were very successful - you won best all-around boy from the Miami Herald and served as president of the student body. What motivated you to be a successful student?
BG: Well, I'm certain it was the expectations set by my parents. I can't ever remember my parents saying, "Bob, we expect you to be a good student," but they set their own personal example - my mother had been a school teacher before she met my dad and my father was an engineer. They were both well-educated and they sort of let me know that I was expected to be a good student. I enjoyed school. I ended up going to school in that town of Hialeah and then I went to the University of Florida, where my two older brothers had attended and graduated. While at the University of Florida, I was aware of what was going on and wanted to be actively involved in the development of Miami Lakes. I was convinced the best graduate education would be to go to law school, so I went to Harvard where my older brother had also gone. To the extent that I could, I emphasized city planning in my legal studies and then came back in 1962 after I graduated and have been involved in the Miami Lakes business to the extent I could. I was very involved up until the time I was elected governor in 1978. I have been less so since that time. While at the University of Florida, I met a beautiful brunette and we started dating and fell in love. During my senior year and her junior year, we were married. After I graduated, we moved up to Cambridge and lived there for our first three years of marriage. We now have four daughters and the oldest of which, Gwen Graham, is a member of Congress for the second congressional district, which is basically Panama City to Tallahassee, and she is now running for governor. So we are very excited and doing everything we can to help her achieve her goal, which I think would be a very positive step for Florida to have its first woman governor and one who is as talented as I know her to be.
COA: How involved are you in your daughter's campaign?
BG: I'm doing whatever she asks me to do. I do media visits - in the last ten days, I've been on three or four radio or television shows and visited editorial boards. I have also been involved in fundraising. I have some connections that go back to my political years that have been very supportive of Gwen's campaign, but whatever Gwen asks I try to do.
COA: It would be interesting to have a woman in the Governor's office.
BG: I think it's more than just a gender issue. I believe women have something in their DNA that makes them less strident and more willing to try and find common ground. That's what democracy is at its best; people who bring their own life experiences and expectations to the table and out of many comes a common set of directions that become the way we operate our public schools, the way we protect our environment and the way we increase economic opportunities for our people. All those are the result of compromise and I think women are better at it than men.
COA: We need compromise and understanding in these political times.
BG: I said at the beginning of our conversation that we're undergoing some really major changes in who are as Americans. We have a population that's growing older and more diverse. For a long time, Americans have defined Americans as being Caucasian, but within your lifetime, Caucasian will be a plurality but not a majority. So we are learning to live with a much more diverse population. All those things are going to require government to help us get through this transition - from what America has been to what America is becoming and we haven't done a very good job of it, in my opinion. We're going to need some people, and I think many of them will be women, who can help us maneuver this very significant transition to a new America.
COA: Can we go back now and talk about your "workdays?" I just love the idea. What inspired you to do that and what did you learn from them?
BG: First, let me say that Gwen has also picked up that part of our family tradition and she has done almost 60 workdays. I think she is finding them to have the same value that they did to me. Workdays were the result of a series of accidents. I was in the state senate in the 1970s and was chairman of the education committee. In that position, we were holding our pre-legislative session in schools around the state. I became aware that civics was frequently not taught and even more frequently, if taught, was not taught very well. I gave a speech to a group of civic teachers about my observations. They were not happy about what I said. One of the teachers got up and said, "I'm sick to death of you politicians telling us how to do our teaching better. You don't know what you're talking about, and the only way to find out is to actually go in the classroom see what it's like to deal with indifferent students, parents who won't show up for parent-teacher conferences, overly bureaucratic school administrations and all those laws that you people pass that we've got to follow." She also said, "I challenge you to come in the classroom and see what it's like." Thinking she had in mind a couple hours on Tuesday afternoon, I said yes. Well, when she called me back, she had a different idea. She asked me to come to Carol City Senior High School, which was an almost inner-city school, on the day after Labor Day and report to room 208 at 8 o'clock in the morning. "You will be teaching 12th grade civics for the next 18 weeks," she said. Well, that was a little more than I had signed up for, but I figured I had accepted her challenge and I was going to do it. So, with the help of a young social studies teacher at Carol City, we developed a curriculum built around the question, "What does a citizen need to know to make democracy work for them?" That is the topic that we taught for 18 weeks. It was a life-transforming experience, as the teacher had said it would be. It changed my understanding of what it was like being a teacher in a big urban high school. I also learned the importance of learning by doing. It's a much more impactful experience if you are learning as you are actually engaged in an activity, such as teaching, and I got the idea that there were probably a lot of other things I could learn about Florida by working directly. I couldn't do it for 18 weeks, but I could do it at least for a full day. That was the beginning - that was work day number one and I did a total of 408 over a 30 year period. It was one of the most important parts of my life because it shaped so much of the rest of my life. I think it's a great preparation for public office because it puts you directly in contact with the people who are affected by the decisions you make and it's a tremendous exposure to the real world.
COA: Tell me about the Community Care for the Elderly program that you helped to create. Why do you have a passion for helping seniors and what do you think are the most important issues facing seniors now?
BG: I will have to give a lot of credit to my wife Adele. Her father, who passed away in the late 70s, did not have a good period of life at the end. One of the reasons was because what he really wanted to do was to be at home with his wife in surroundings that were familiar to him, but he wasn't able to be independent. He needed help with dressing, feeding, all the requirements of life, and his wife was not capable of doing that. So, he ended up in a nursing home. My wife came away from the experience that she had with her father and her mother with a feeling that there should be another alternative. She thought that alternative should be that older people who aren't fully independent should be able to live in their home and have the kind of support that they need come to them in their home, rather than they have to go into an institution. That was somewhat the genesis of the idea for Community Care of the Elderly. When I was governor, it became one of my highest priorities. The legislature adopted it in the early 80s and it was a very flourishing program. One of the commitments that Gwen has made in her campaign is that, as governor, she will restore a strong and expanding Community Care program that will provide those services that allow seniors to have the dignity of living in their home, but give to the caregiver in the home the support that he or she needs in order to carry out the activities that the senior is no longer able to do.
COA: How do you feel about the current status of Democratic policies in both the state of Florida and the nation?
BG: If you mean Democratic policies such as expanding Medicaid, I and Gwen are strong advocates for that. It's hard to think of a reason why Florida should continue to be one of the holdouts to a program that has been 100 percent financed by the federal government. Now there is going to be some state financial involvement, but it will still be overwhelmingly paid for by the federal government, which means our tax dollars are going for the programs and yet Floridians are not being given the opportunity to take advantage of expanding Medicaid. This is particularly important for older citizens because the largest segment of Medicaid in Florida is services for older Americans, such as programs like Community Care of the Elderly or, if necessary, various forms of institutional care. For elderly who were well prepared for retirement, then they had the good fortune of living so long that they used their retirement early and have reached a point where they had to have some help in order to be able to either have assistance in their home through Community Care or be a resident in an institution.
COA: How about on a national level? Where do you see the Democratic Party currently and what do you feel the Democratic Party needs to do in order to win back the American voter?
BG: I think the whole country is undergoing a major transition. Americans are getting older. In Florida today, one out of five is over the age of 65. The nation will look like Florida in the next 25 years. I think that the Democratic Party needs to focus on those things that will ensure opportunities. That means education quality - education from kindergarten through high school, then the opportunity for affordable access to higher education either in skills training or an academic degree. That's going to be a major challenge for Florida.
COA: How do you feel about young people's engagement in civil discourse, especially recently with the students from the Parkland school shooting in Florida?
BG: Parkland goes back to that experience at Carol City High School where I have been a fervent advocate of civic education for a variety of reasons. Civics education was virtually stripped from curriculum not only in Florida but across the country in the 1970s and stayed that way until recently. In 2010 Florida adopted what's called the Sandra Day O'Connor Act, which restored civics throughout the K-12 curriculum, with particular emphasis on the middle school grades. Students have to take a formal course in civics in either the 7th or 8th grade. It's interesting that those students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had been in the first group of students when they were in the 7th and 8th grade to have taken civics. They went to a high school that also had an active civics program and I believe the way they responded to that tragedy reflects that. In a number of other school shootings, students grieve and show their sadness, but it didn't result in any actions that might actually improve the safety of students. At Stoneman Douglas, they had enough confidence in themselves based on what they knew were effective techniques that citizens could use to make government work for them. The Florida legislature, for the first time in many years, took the first step to make guns safer in Florida. You now have to be 21 to get access to a gun and they tightened up the background checks and other things that will be respectful of the second amendment, but at the same time recognize that there are legitimate and constitutional steps that will make students in school and the public in whatever place they find themselves safer from the kind of savagery that hit Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine's Day. When I retired from the Senate and was thinking about what I was going to do next, I decided that one of my three or four priorities, with frankly my first priority being to spend as much time as I could with my eleven grandchildren, would be to try to restore civics to the public schools of Florida and the country. To do that, I've written two books on effective citizenship. The current book is called America the Owner's Manual: You Can Fight City Hall and Win, which is being used in a number of schools today. Second, at the University of Florida's Bob Graham Center for Public Service, we are training the next generation of citizens how to be effective and hopefully encouraging some of those students to think about public service as a major part of their life. So, those are some of the things that I'm doing in the area of civic engagement.
COA: You're also the chairman of the Florida Conservation Coalition. Tell me about your work with that organization and why it's important?
BG: The FCC, the Florida Conservation Coalition, was the result of what happened in 2011. Florida, beginning in the 60s, had started to develop some very effective policies on both water and land use. We're nationally recognized as a leader and we should be because we are facing such a constant growth in our population. In my lifetime, Florida has gone from a state of about one million to a state of now almost 21 million and in the 2011 session of the legislature, most of that structure designed to protect our land and water was abolished. Many of us felt that was a major mistake and decided that rather than the environmental organizations each working on their own, which had shown to be an ineffective strategy, that we should create a coalition of organizations as well as individual Floridians who were concerned about this. The outgrowth of that was the Florida Conservation Commission. Our greatest accomplishment to date was in 2014 when we put on the ballot a constitutional amendment to restore the states land acquisitions program, which had been an important part of that period from the 1960s up until this century. The state had been supporting it at a level of about $380 million a year and some of the most beautiful parts of the Florida panhandle that are now available for public use were the result of the funding available through that program. But, it had been just about shut down by the actions of the legislature in 2011. We went to the people and by a 75 percent vote, Floridians restored the land acquisition program. We've been working since then to get the legislature to do what the people demanded that they do. We struck out for two or three years and finally this year, in 2018, the legislature appropriated $100 million - still well below what it had been historically at the end of the 20th century, but at least better than the zeros that had proceeded it for most of the period of Governor Scott's administration. We hope to build on that success in future legislatures and again my daughter is fully committed to restoring the environmental programs, particularly the land acquisition program, to where they were in the 1970s, 80s, 90s and the first part of this century under both Republican and Democratic state governments.
COA: How do you feel the Florida State Legislature has changed since you've served and maybe the state of Florida in general?
BG: First the legislature - I served there for 12 years and my father before me for eight, so I had a lot of experience in and around the legislature. I don't think that some of the institutional changes that have occurred have been beneficial, particularly the term limits. When I went into the legislature in 1966, there were a number of people who had been there for 10 years or more. People like Reubin Askew, who represented Pensacola, within the state senate at that time, people like Verle Pope from St. Augustine. They helped to give a balance, bringing with them their own personal experiences in how the state had evolved and how the legislature had reacted to that evolution. I think the current legislature misses having that group of experienced people to help guide and mentor the younger members. I think another thing that concerns me is there are some important issues in Florida that require the legislature to look beyond the specific district that they represent to what's in the statewide interests. One of the most important of those is our education system, which requires a statewide vision of what's important.
COA: You were the cochair of the National Commission for the BP oil spill and offshore drilling. What are some basic things you think need to happen to protect the Gulf and Florida from things like this?
BG: First, it's easier to say things that shouldn't happen. There should not be drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico adjacent to Florida. From virtually the beginning of offshore oil drilling in the Gulf, Florida has rejected it and has done so because there was an awareness that our future was going to be in areas that were in conflict with offshore oil drilling. In the panhandle, it's not only the tourist industry, which comes in large part because of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but also the military. The military uses the Gulf as a very valuable training place for both the Navy and the Air Force. And those activities are more important for Florida and the nation than whatever might be gained by pumping oil off the coast of Florida. The second thing is because we are so close to states that do sanction drilling off their coast, it's important to us that offshore drilling is done with the highest standards of safety. We saw in the BP oil spill, something that occurred off the mouth of the Mississippi River, and what state ended up having the most economic damage from the oil spill? Second only to Louisiana, was Florida. We're kind of the downstream state for oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, so we have a big interest in avoiding those spills by seeing that the drilling is done at the highest standards of protection and safety. As we speak there are proposals to roll back many of the safety measures that were adopted after BP precisely to implement the lessons we learned from BP, so I'm concerned. We need to vote to continue to avoid drilling off the coast of Florida and second, to ensure that when our neighbors allow drilling, it's done at world-class standards of safety.
COA: What is the one thing the average citizen can do to really be involved at the local level and make a difference in their community?
BG: One is to be aware of what's happening around them, which means among other things accessing media like your magazine, the newspaper and local television stations. These outlets alert citizens to what's happening in their communities, their schools and their universities. If so alerted, people see something that they find unacceptable, then they need to have the skills of effective citizenship in order to do something about it. Frankly, that's what the book America the Owner's Manual is about. It gives a step-by-step discussion using case studies of where other citizens have encountered a problem that they wanted to solve or an opportunity they wanted to take advantage of, and explains how they went about doing it.
COA: Is there anything else you are working on that our readers might be interested in?
BG: Well, I mentioned that when I retired I thought through what I wanted to spend my time on and you've touched on three of the things. One is grandchildren, second is civics education and third is the environment. The fourth item - I had been chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee during the 9/11 tragedy and I felt because of what I knew, what I know, there was a lot of information that has not been made available to the American people that should be made available. So I've been working to get as much of that released as possible. There was a document that became kind of a symbol of information that had been withheld called the "28 Pages," which was basically about the Saudis' involvement in 9/11, in particular, the funding. I've spent a lot of time in my retirement working to get the federal government to give the American people more information about an event that has shaped much of America since it occurred in September of 2001.
COA: Do you see the release of those papers as likely?
BG: Eventually it'll happen. I don't think we should wait. It's been 17 years and I don't think we should wait another 17 years. There are several places where that information might be made available. I'm involved with a Freedom of Information Act effort to get information about a situation that occurred in our own state, where hijackers and Saudis had apparently collaborated. The FBI has stated that there were many connections between the hijackers and the prominent Saudis, but they, the FBI, have been unwilling to release the details of what that many connections meant and what steps are being taken to see that it won't happen in the future.
COA: You've been married for nearly 60 years, is that correct?
BG: February 2, 2019, will be 60 years, yes.
COA: What do you see is the key to a successful marriage? How do you make a marriage last for 60 years?
BG: You have to understand that you and your partner are both undergoing constant change and be sensitive to that and accommodate that. I think that the period in the last 10 years has been one of the best 10 years of our 60 years of marriage, and I expect the next 10 years to be even better.
COA: Is that because retirement gives you more time to be together?
BG: I guess more time and more opportunity to do things with your spouse. As I say, one of my priorities is to spend time with our 11 grandchildren, who are scattered up and down the east coast from Boston to Miami. That's been a tremendous source of joy and happiness.
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