Graham's departure a big loss for party - and nation

November 05, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - The Democratic Party suffered a major loss the other day when Sen. Bob Graham of Florida announced that he will not seek a fourth term next year - and not just because the decision could cost the party his Senate seat.

That certainly looms as a critical price to pay because three other Southern Democrats in the Senate - the venerable Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, Zell Miller of Georgia and John Edwards of North Carolina - also are retiring from that body, opening the once Solid South of the Democrats to further erosion by the Republicans.

But the Democratic hopes of overtaking the GOP's current 51-49 voting edge in the Senate (counting Independent James M. Jeffords of Vermont voting with the Dems) were not very bright even before Mr. Graham decided to retire after 35 years as a Florida legislator, governor and U.S. senator.

As a national figure, Mr. Graham never has been a shining star, as his brief and unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination proved. Despite his durability as a politician (he has never lost an election), Mr. Graham's soft and gentlemanly style set off no sparks for him as a presidential candidate. Nor was he able to generate the money needed for an effective national campaign.

He has been, nevertheless, Florida's most popular political figure since his days in the 1980s as the state's governor and was a finalist in Al Gore's search for a running mate in the 2000 presidential race. He has also been mentioned as a possible vice presidential nominee for 2004 to help carry critical Florida. It remains to be seen whether his decision to leave the Senate closes that door.

Beyond all these reasons for Democrats to deplore Mr. Graham's announcement of Senate retirement, his departure will remove from the touted world's greatest deliberative body one of its most decent and public-minded members.

It's noteworthy that on the day he informed Floridians that he would not ask them for a fourth six-year term next year, he was helping to repair the roof on Lincoln High School in the state capital of Tallahassee. It was another of the "work days" he has undertaken regularly since his first run for the governorship in 1978.

The days started as a clever political gimmick to demonstrate his regular-guy interest in the average working man, and it succeeded famously. (It was at one of these, a chicken-plucking chore at a Florida processing plant, where I first met him.) But he vowed that in the course of these stints, he learned more about his working-stiff constituents and could better relate to their problems.

That he was out repairing that school roof when he had already decided not to seek re-election said volumes about the man's commitment and integrity. That's why his departure from the Senate will be a loss not only to his Democratic Party, but to the country.

As a former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Mr. Graham served in the same bipartisan manner as his successor in that post, Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, who in his even longer Senate service has been a GOP mirror image of Mr. Graham. Together, they have been perhaps the most respected pair across the partisan aisle in that ordinarily contentious forum.

Only a week or so ago, I encountered Mr. Graham and his wife, Adele, shopping at a suburban supermarket across the Potomac in Arlington. Shortly after he had withdrawn as a presidential candidate, Mr. Graham spoke animatedly about the war in Iraq, which he alone of the senators running for president had voted against.

With a year to go before leaving the Senate, it's likely Bob Graham's quiet voice will continue to be heard there on that and other critical issues of the day - even as the two parties start scrambling to claim his seat, if not the esteem in which he has been held.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau and appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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