A Graham spokesman tried on Monday to pooh-pooh their importance as an issue, noting that a Democratic rival keeps a campaign diary on his Web page. But Republican operatives are already pointing out an inaccuracy in how Graham has said he has archived the diaries, and suddenly the respected, mild-mannered candidate’s personal “quirk” threatens to be a full-fledged story.
In Graham’s journals — which he’s been keeping daily since 1977 — the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee records everything about his day. Though Graham’s notebooks are packed with important information about serious senatorial business, they are also interrupted by notations about the application of scalp ointment, the eating of tuna fish sandwiches and the rewinding of videotapes.
It is that level of detail that some political observers — both Democrat and Republican — are finding odd. At the very least, politicos and journalists wonder if the diaries could be twisted into a larger issue, tarnishing one of the senator’s main selling points — his “electability” and seriousness of purpose.
“It’s peculiar that people like to make fun of something reporters do every day and that most of us do in our Palm Pilots,” says Jamal Simmons, a Graham campaign spokesman. Simmons points out that Graham’s primary rival — and the man with whom he is competing for the votes of moderates, Democratic hawks and Floridians — Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., keeps a campaign diary in which “Lieberman records the play-by-play of all the moments of the trips that he takes.”
Team Lieberman doesn’t quite share this opinion. “I wouldn’t say they’re exactly the same,” a Lieberman aide says. “The devil is often in the details — no matter how minute those details might be.”
Asked on April 27 by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos if he would release the diaries, Graham said he had “placed all of my notebooks from the first 12 years in the University of Florida Library of Florida History. I intend to do so with the balance of my notebooks at an appropriate time.” But, according to Jim Cusick, curator of Florida history at the George A. Smathers Library at the University of Florida, that isn’t true. The library collection doesn’t have any of the pocket notebooks Graham started keeping when he first ran for governor in 1977.
Graham’s Senate spokesman, Paul Anderson, concedes that his boss misspoke. “There’s some confusion over that,” Anderson says. The University of Florida has “papers from his years at law school,” which include “more traditional notebooks, not the ones he is now famous for.” Those are in storage in Tallahassee.
But the location of the journals is hardly the issue — though Republican operatives have been calling reporters to tell them that Graham made misleading comments about the location of the diaries. Now that the self-described candidate who boasts of being “from the electable wing of the Democratic Party” has thrown his hat into the ring, the diaries become a topic, at least for Graham’s opponents.
On paper, Graham has as strong a case to make for his candidacy as any of the top-tier candidates he faces. He is a serious man, a two-term governor who has been warning about the threat from al-Qaida for years. He is a Southerner in a party whose last non-Southern president was elected more than 40 years ago. But he can’t escape the questions about these diaries, which has caused his campaign some frustration.
“They’re going to prove to be problematic for him,” says a top advisor to one of Graham’s Democratic primary rivals. This isn’t necessarily because the contents of the notebooks will reveal any “huge revelations.” Rather, the advisor says, “most voters will find them strange and sort of bewildering. They’re a weird quirk.” Were Graham to emerge as a top-tier contender in the field of nine, “I imagine those notebooks will become part of the debate.”
Others are less convinced. When Cusick first heard Graham’s diaries were in his collection, he says, “I was dying to see one. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ I thought we’d have to get out there” — to the off-site storage area where the 200 boxes of Graham’s artifacts are kept — “so we can start organizing these collections. I knew we’d get a lot of requests.”
On April 28, the day after the ABC interview, archivist Mel Willis was dispatched to those 200 boxes, which he began rooting through. “It took him a week to go through,” Cusick tells Salon.
But the most recent notebook turned out to be from Graham’s days as a student at Harvard University Law School, from which he graduated in 1962. The general material “tends to peter out around 1978, when Graham became a senator,” Cusick says, adding that the library collection doesn’t “have any of the diaries that are the kind everybody’s interested in right now.”
Cusick was disappointed, saying, “Graham is very meticulous in the way he keeps notes, and I was interested to see how he thinks about things.” Cusick sees Graham’s journals as historical artifacts akin to the papers the library holds from other former Florida officials, like Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward and Sen. David Levy Yulee.
But their level of detail has others questioning Graham about them. Asked by Stephanopoulos if he worried the diaries might make him seem “obsessive,” Graham insisted that they were perfectly normal. It’s a habit picked up from his dairy farmer father, Graham said, who “kept a notebook religiously as a means of recording sick cows and broken fences.” Similarly, Graham says, he writes down voters’ concerns and makes sure he follows up on them. No big deal, he insisted. But excerpts indicate that the diaries are a bit more complex than just a way for him to ensure that he follows up on tasks.
The log for Sept. 17, 2002, begins by noting his 6:50 a.m. wake-up call, followed by a weigh-in (181 pounds) and hair care: “6:50-7:00 Apply scalp medication.” That’s followed by more granular detail: “7:00-7:40 Kitchen — brew coffee — prepare and drink breakfast (soy, skim milk, OJ, peach, banana, blueberries), read Post, dress in gray suit.”
Other matters of import quickly rear their heads, like an 8 a.m. conversation indicating that Graham staffers “have not received CIA answers to Iraq Qs” and a 12:20-12:35 review with his environmental staffers of the status of “Apalachicola River + Forest” and other issues. He has a busy day of briefings and meetings on Capitol Hill, including discussions with Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., CIA director George Tenet, House Select Committee on Intelligence chairman Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Sen. Dick Shelby, R-Ala., CIA congressional liaison Stan Moskowitz, and the like. Then it’s back home by 8:40 p.m., where it was time to “change to blue shorts,” “apply scalp medication,” and, of course, “update notebook.”
University of Virginia politics professor Larry Sabato minces no words, calling the notebooks “obsessive-compulsive.” A spokeswoman for the Obsessive-Compulsive Foundation seems to question Sabato’s diagnosis. While “one in every 40 people show signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder,” she says, some of the big questions include whether Graham’s “quality of life is being intruded upon or compromised in any way by all of this record keeping.” Moreover, a review of the foundation’s “screening test” would seemingly dispute Sabato’s claim.
Graham’s diaries first became part of the national conversation in 2000 when he was being discussed as a possible running mate for Vice President Al Gore. One source from the Gore campaign insists they were not even remotely a factor in the decision to select Lieberman. But another campaign source points out that Graham didn’t make it to the final tier of potential veeps — which included Lieberman and two other 2004 hopefuls, Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina — when a more thorough vetting takes place and the diaries would more likely have emerged as an issue.
In any case, the possibility of Graham’s selection brought forth a July 2000 story in Time. That story included the following Graham diary excerpts, recorded on the September 1994 day when his daughter Cissy gave birth. Graham recorded, from 12:20 p.m. to 1:20 p.m.: “Eat lunch (tuna salad). Watch Ace Ventura. 12:50: Cissy thinks she’s going into labor. 1:15: Cissy preparing to leave for Baptist Hospital … 1:30-1:45: Rewind Ace Ventura. 2:00: Adele [Graham's wife] ready to go. Drive to Baptist Hospital. 2:15: Stop at Blockbuster to return Ace Ventura.”
Why would he record such obscure matters as the rewinding of a videotape? “I might ask the question, Why not?” Graham told the St. Petersburg Times. “If you spent 15 minutes rewinding Ace Ventura and returning it to Blockbuster, why not, as part of a log of what you did throughout the day, include it? For personal purposes, it’s kind of nostalgic to think back to the day before Cissy had this baby, that we spent the evening together watching this movie.”
On May 7, the day after Graham’s official candidacy speech, the Washington Post Style section printed a mockery of the diaries. “12:17: Ascend stage, stumble, regain balance … 12:20: Adjust tie (red, white stripes).” That morning, NBC’s Katie Couric — unaware that the Post story was a satire — asked the candidate about the excerpts. Graham’s response was essentially that those notations couldn’t have been legitimate — after all, he hadn’t made his notebook entries for the day before until that morning, so there’s no way the Post could have obtained them. “For me, it is a means of organization and discipline,” Graham said. “And I guess my question is why more people in public office don’t do this.”