Graham's 26 years in statewide elected office and 12 years as a legislator are rivaled by only a handful of Floridians: Lawton Chiles (12 years as a state legislator, 18 in the U.S. Senate and, after a two-year hiatus, two terms as governor); Spessard L. Holland (eight years in the state Senate, four years as governor, and a year later began 25 years as U.S. senator ending in 1971); Duncan U. Fletcher (28 years as U.S. senator ending with his death in 1936); and Nathan Mayo (agriculture commissioner 1923-60). Compare the legendary Claude D. Pepper, with 25 years in the U.S. House, who spent just 14 years in statewide office as U.S. senator.
Supported by editorial boards, liberal reformers and a network of establishment chums from the University of Florida, Graham governed just left of center, emphasized environment and education and raised sales and gas taxes. He made conservative hearts go pitty-pat with a stream of death warrants and anti-crime symbolism. He was attentive to seniors and veterans. Graham cared about a lot of things and loved to pitch his ideas. He responded skillfully to the Mariel and Haiti boatlifts.
Most of his crusades had built-in popularity, but every now and then he'd take up some quirky, wonky cause because he thought it was right. The best example is his successful constitutional initiative for a higher-ed Board of Governors to replace the old Board of Regents, abolished under Gov. Jeb Bush. Graham rode his popularity into the Senate in 1986 by defeating Republican incumbent Paula Hawkins. In the twilight of his tenure there, he showed a rare boldness in challenging President George W. Bush on terrorism. He went on a tear about intelligence screw-ups that failed to prevent the 9/11 attacks and about what he perceived as a cover-up by Bush, particularly on the Saudi connections.
Graham brought humor and playfulness to politics. He was the biggest ham ever to occupy the governorship, even counting Claude Kirk. He once brought in Jimmy Buffett at the annual Press Corps Skits and joined in singing "Wasting Away in Tallahasseeville." His final year as governor, Graham dressed up in a white uniform like Haiti's "President for Life" Papa Doc Duvalier, marched into the performance hall at the head of the FAMU marching band and proclaimed himself Governor for Life. Old-timers reminisce about it these 18 years later, when a more introverted governor just sends a video.
Graham's quest for consensus once got him branded Gov. Jell-O, but he rejected the meanness that now permeates politics. He has preserved a reputation for thoughtfulness and integrity and was fun for the reporters who covered him. Graham leaves what most of us want to leave: Warts and all, a career to be proud of.