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Bob Graham, former Florida governor and US senator, dies at 87

2-term Democratic governor dies in Gainesville
FILE - Sen. Bob Graham, right, speaks during the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Spill and Offshore Drilling meeting on Sept. 27, 2010, in Washington. The former Florida Sen. Graham, who chaired the Intelligence Committee following the 2001 terrorist attacks and opposed the Iraq invasion, has died, according to an announcement by his family Tuesday, April 16, 2024. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)
Posted at 10:45 PM, Apr 16, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-17 15:23:25-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Bob Graham, a former Democratic Florida governor and U.S. senator, has died. He was 87.

His family announced the death Tuesday in a statement posted on X by his daughter Gwen Graham.

"We are deeply saddened to report the passing of a visionary leader, dedicated public servant, and even more importantly a loving husband, father, grandfather, and great grandfather, Bob Graham," the statement read.

He died at 8:30 p.m. with his wife, Adele, and family by his side in a retirement community in Gainesville.

"We're very attached and love him so much, so proud of him," Adele told the Tallahassee Democrat in a phone interview. "He was an absolute devoted person in public service, to get things done for everybody."

Graham was elected governor in 1978 and served two terms.

In 1986, he was elected U.S. senator and reelected in 1992 and 1998.

Before becoming Florida's governor, he won a term in the Florida House of Representatives in 1966 and served in the Florida Senate from 1970 to 1978.

The Florida Democratic Party issued the following statement:

"There are no words that can fully capture what Bob Graham meant to the state of Florida. A giant in Florida politics, Bob set the standard for every elected official who followed — both Democrat and Republican. He lived a life most of us could only dream of, one where he impacted the lives of millions with an unparalleled heart for service and a moral compass that always pointed true. Our hearts go out to Adele, Gwen, and the entire Graham family as they mourn their loss and celebrate his incredible life. Part of the DNA of every Florida Democrat is living up to the example Bob Graham set for us. As we honor his legacy, may we all love and serve Florida the way he did — with a twinkle in our eyes and a curiosity for things unknown."

President Joe Biden and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio also issued the following statements on Graham's passing and his legacy.

Bob Graham was a colleague, friend, and devoted Floridian whose nearly 50 years of service to his beloved home state and to our country have made America a safer and stronger nation.

Our hearts today are with Bob’s beloved wife of 65 years, Adele; with their four daughters, Gwen, Cissy, Suzanne, and Kendall; with their grandchildren and friends; and with the people of Florida, whom Bob served so well in so many ways for so long. - Statement in part by President Joe Biden
Bob Graham was a selfless public servant, whose legacy and impact will live on. From his days in the state House to his days in the governor’s mansion and the U.S. Senate, Bob Graham always understood whom he served. It was a core value, one that he lived out even after he retired from public service. Florida, and the nation, lost a very good man. Jeanette and I are praying for Adele, their kids, and the entire Graham family. - Senator Marco Rubio

Graham made an unsuccessful bid for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, emphasizing his opposition to the Iraq invasion.

He chaired the Intelligence Committee following the 2001 terrorist attacks and opposed the Iraq invasion.

His presidential bid was delayed by heart surgery in January 2003 and he was never able to gain enough traction with voters to catch up, bowing out that October. He didn't seek re-election in 2004 and was replaced by Republican Mel Martinez.

Graham was a man of many quirks. He perfected the "workdays" political gimmick of spending a day doing various jobs from horse stall mucker to FBI agent and kept a meticulous diary, noting almost everyone he spoke with, everything he ate, the TV shows he watched and even his golf scores.

But he closed the notebooks to the media during his short-lived presidential bid on the advice of his campaign that was concerned coverage of the contents could become a distraction or potentially embarrass the candidate.

WATCH: WPTV's Michael Williams and former Palm Beach Post Tallassee Bureau Chief Brian Crowley discuss the legacy of Bob Graham

WPTV anchor Michael Williams and Brian Crowley discuss Bob Graham's legacy

Graham said the notebooks were a working tool for him and that he was reluctant to describe his emotions or personal feelings in them.

"I review them for calls to be made, memos to be dictated, meetings I want to follow up on and things people promise to do," he said.

Graham was among the earliest opponents of the Iraq war, saying it diverted America's focus on the battle against terrorism centered in Afghanistan. He was also critical of President George W. Bush for failing to have an occupation plan in Iraq after the U.S. military threw out Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Graham said Bush took the United States into the war by exaggerating claims of the danger presented by the Iraqi weapons of destruction that were never found. He said Bush distorted intelligence data and argued it was more serious than the sexual misconduct issues that led the U.S. House to impeach President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s. It led him to launch his short, abortive presidential bid.

"The quagmire in Iraq is a distraction that the Bush administration, and the Bush administration alone, has created," Graham said in 2003.

Bob Graham dies at 87.png
United States Senate

During his 18 years in Washington, Graham worked well with colleagues from both parties, particularly Florida Republican Connie Mack during their dozen years together in the Senate.

As a politician, few were better. Florida voters hardly considered him the wealthy Harvard-educated attorney that he was.

Graham's political career spanned five decades, beginning with his election to the Florida House of Representatives in 1966.

He won a state Senate seat in 1970 and then was elected governor in 1978. He was re-elected in 1982. Four years later, he won the first of three terms in the U.S. Senate when he ousted incumbent Republican Paula Hawkins.

Graham remained widely popular with Florida voters — winning re-election by wide margins in 1992 and 1998 when he carried 63 of 67 counties.

Even when in Washington, Graham never took his eye off the state and the leadership in Tallahassee.

When Gov. Jeb Bush and the Republican-controlled Legislature eliminated the Board of Regents in 2001, Graham saw it as a move to politicize the state university system. He led a successful petition drive the next year for a state constitutional amendment that created the Board of Governors to assume the regents' role.

Bob Graham, ex-U.S. senator and Florida governor, dies at 87
Bob Graham, ex-U.S. senator and Florida governor, dies at 87

Daniel Robert Graham was born Nov. 9, 1936, in Coral Gables where his father, Ernest "Cap" Graham, had moved from South Dakota and established a large dairy operation. Young Bob milked cows, built fences and scooped manure as a teenager. One of his half-brothers, Phillip Graham, was publisher of The Washington Post and Newsweek until he committed suicide in 1963, just a year after Bob Graham's graduation from Harvard Law.

Graham was president of the student body at Miami Senior High School and attended the University of Florida, graduating in 1959.

In 1966 he was elected to the Florida Legislature, where he focused largely on education and health care issues.

But Graham got off to a shaky start as Florida's chief executive and was dubbed "Gov. Jello" for some early indecisiveness. He shook that label through his handling of several serious crises.

As governor, he also signed numerous death warrants, founded the Save the Manatee Club with entertainer Jimmy Buffett and led efforts to establish several environmental programs.

Graham pushed through a bond program to buy beaches and barrier islands threatened by development and also started the Save Our Everglades program to protect the state's water supply, wetlands and endangered species.

Florida Governor Bob Graham and Boatswain Mate Second Class James Phillips State Archives of Florida

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Graham also was known for his 408 "workdays," including stints as a housewife, boxing ring announcer, flight attendant and arson investigator. They grew out of a teaching stint as a member of the Florida Senate's Education Committee and then morphed into a campaign gimmick that helped him relate to the average voter.

"This has been a very important part of my development as a public official, my learning at a very human level what the people of Florida expect, what they want, what their aspirations are and then trying to interpret that and make it policy that will improve their lives," said Graham in 2004 as he completed his final job as a Christmas gift wrapper.

After leaving public life in 2005, Graham spent much of his time at a public policy center named after him at the University of Florida and pushing the Legislature to require more civics classes in the state's public schools.

Graham was one of five members selected for an independent commission by President Barack Obama in June 2010 to investigate a massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that threatened sea life and beaches along several southeastern Gulf states.

In honor of Graham, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has ordered flags of the United States and the State of Florida to be flown at half-staff at all local and state buildings, installations, and grounds throughout Florida from sunrise to sunset, beginning Wednesday until sunset on the date of internment.