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Dress in gray suit, discuss CIA, mingle

Critics may consider it odd, but Sen. Bob Graham keeps a meticulous daily log of mundane tasks for a reason. Someday, historians may be glad.

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 23, 2003

This portrait of Sen. Bob Graham hangs in the hall to the governor’s office in the Florida Capitol. In his hand is one of his notebooks.

WASHINGTON -- On Sunday, Feb. 7, 1999, Sen. Bob Graham awoke in the bedroom of his Capitol Hill townhouse and began his daily ritual by stepping on the scale.

He weighed 187 pounds, up 1 pound from the previous day.

He watched CBS Sunday Morning and rode his exercise bike for 30 minutes, burning 246 calories. He read the Washington Post as he rode.

The details about his behavior on Feb. 7 -- like every other day of his life -- were dutifully logged in a small notebook.

"Dress in khaki pants," he wrote after his exercise session. He watched This Week, walked to a Senate garage to get his car and drove to the Washington suburbs to visit his daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters.

His afternoon activities included "Play w triplets," reading the New York Times, eating vegetable and corn chowder, and "drive to the Elden + Herndon Shopping Center w/ Tom, Suzanne, Adele, triplets in Suburban."
Dear Diary . . .
Excerpts from a Bob Graham notebook.

Famous diaries

Graham, 66, has filled nearly 4,000 notebooks since he first ran for governor in 1977. The entries -- in ballpoint ink in Graham's meticulous cursive -- provide a unique glimpse into the life of a senator/grandfather/raisin bran eater. They have also become an unusual lightning rod in Graham's likely presidential campaign.

Miami Herald columnist Jim DeFede writes, "There is definitely something strange and a little bit disturbing about Bob Graham's fetish." But conservative writer George Will praises the notebooks as a sign of "extreme self-discipline."

The legend about Graham's notebooks is filled with exaggerations and falsehoods. No, Graham does not write about his trips to bathroom. And no, the notebooks did not prevent him from being picked as Al Gore's running mate.

Yet the legend grows. In Washington -- a town where people shun diaries for fear of grand-jury subpoenas -- Graham's habit is considered slightly odd.

The debate boils down to this: Is this just a quirky habit that helps Graham get organized? Or is it plain weird?

A circle for each task

They are spiral-bound, slightly smaller than a deck of cards, manufactured by the North Carolina Paper Co.

When the company stopped making them in the mid 1990s, Graham bought out the supply. He has hundreds left, probably enough for the rest of his Senate career, two terms in the White House and a lengthy retirement.

To study Graham's habit, a St. Petersburg Times reporter examined a sampling of notebooks from the past three years. The reporter chose a wide range of dates to get a variety of weekdays and weekends.

Many diarists fill their journals with emotions and introspection, but not Graham. His are all about tasks and efficiency.

He begins each with the "Log," a detailed account of his day. He writes when he changes clothes, where he slept, his weight, whether he exercised and what he ate.

Over the years, journalists writing profiles of Graham have usually focused on those personal details, but the stories have said little about the other aspect of the notebooks -- the complicated to-do lists he uses to manage his Senate office, his political campaigns and his private life.

He devotes roughly half of each notebook to the lists, which are broken out by topic (Iraq, Plan Colombia, the Board of Regents amendment, the Intelligence committee) and by staff member. He keeps separate to-do lists for his chief of staff, his communications director and his committee aides. He puts circles beside each task and then checks them off when they are complete. Each notebook also has a separate page of questions for his wife Adele, mostly about scheduling and travel matters.

Graham has an elaborate system of abbreviations that includes "3 ST TH" (3rd Street townhouse, his Washington home), "MLTH" (Miami Lakes townhouse) and "LVM" (left voice mail).

The notebooks allow us to draw these conclusions about Florida's senior senator:

He is a voracious reader and a healthy eater.

He has many meetings about Social Security, Medicare and Iraq. He occasionally misspells CIA director George Tenet's name "Tenant.'

He does a lot of walking (he logs every trip to and from the Senate chamber) and a lot of mingling. ("Mingle" is how he logs his activity at parties and receptions.)

He works around the clock and virtually every day of the week. He often is still dictating memos at 11 p.m.

Occasionally, his notebook entries have led to legislation.

In 1997, Graham spent a day working as a Customs inspector in Port Manatee. When Customs employees mentioned communication problems with other agencies, Graham scribbled:

"No sharing of info -- why? . . . Budget depends on # of arrests . . . conflicting agencies: Customs, ATF, DEA, locals."

Those complaints led Graham to call for a federal commission on port security which, in turn, led Congress to pass a sweeping revision of port security laws. Among the requirements: better communication between federal agencies.

A scribble becomes a law.

'Got several Composts'

George Washington kept one. So did John Quincy Adams and Sen. Bob Packwood.

Washington's diary, like Graham's, was a just-the-facts log. It was filled with weather observations and other matters important to a colonial farmer.

"Got several Composts and laid them to dry in order to mix with the Earth," Washington wrote in one entry. "Wind blew very fresh from South. Clouds often appeard, and sometimes threatned the near approach of Rain but a clear setting Sun seemd denoted the Contrary." John Quincy Adams filled his diaries with worries and aspirations. Historian David McCullough says the diaries were a legacy of his father, John Adams. McCullough says Adams told his son that a diary "helps you focus in your life. It is the act of writing that causes the brain to come into focus and have insights you wouldn't have otherwise."

Political journal-keeping has been less popular since the mid 1990s release of Sen. Bob Packwood's diaries, which included lurid details of his sex life, his hairstyle and his aggressive efforts to raise campaign money. He described his sexual encounters and wrote at one point that he "made love to" 22 staff members and had "passionate relationships with" 75 other women. He spoke of getting "smashed" on wine and described an intern as "a cute little button blond thing."

The Senate Ethics Committee recommended Packwood's expulsion from the Senate because of sexual misconduct charges and because he had tried to remove incriminating passages from his diaries. He resigned before the full Senate could vote on his expulsion.

"After Packwood, nobody's going to keep a diary -- or at least an honest one," McCullough says.

McCullough, whose son William is married to Graham's daughter Cissy, relied heavily on diaries to write his best-selling biography of John Adams. He is worried that historians are losing a valuable resource.

"Since so few people keep diaries anymore, future historians and biographers will have very little to work with," McCullough says.

Diaries, he says, "give us a chance to get below the surface." He hasn't seen Graham's diaries but feels that any diaries have value.

Graham says his notebooks are not intended as historical journals but that "this is going to be some historian's trove of information -- what did a politician of this time do, how did they go about conducting their life."

Each notebook covers two to three days. They have usually been open to journalists, although that openness has occasionally backfired, as reporters have focused on his personal quirks without mentioning the serious entries.

The notebooks are stored in closets in Washington and Tallahassee with Graham's trademark meticulousness: each is kept in a manila envelope with his daily schedule and business cards and correspondence he received that day. He even keeps the scrawled notes he receives during meetings from his Senate colleagues, such as one he got during last fall's intelligence hearings from Sen. Jay Rockefeller that asked when the hearing would end so senators could make travel plans.

Graham does not keep classified material in the notebooks. During the intelligence hearings, he took his classified notes on a separate pad of paper that is stored in the committee's vaultlike office.

Tracking his weight

Graham says he was inspired by his father's journals, which kept track of sick cows and broken fences on the family dairy farm in northwest Dade County. Graham thought diaries would help him get organized for his first statewide campaign.

"I needed to be able to recall those things that were important to the campaign," Graham says. "I needed to be able to keep some notes of what was happening throughout the day. The notebooks were an ideal way to do that."

"It was remarkably efficient," says Jill Chamberlin, a speech writer and press secretary for him in the 1980s, when he was Florida's governor. She says he would flip through the notebooks and dictate memos and assignments to staffers.

Graham has always been famous for his follow-up. When he meets a stranger in an airport, he writes their name in his notebook and sends a friendly letter. When he gives staffers an assignment on his to-do lists, he routinely checks back to make sure the task hasn't been forgotten.

Graham says the details in his log might seem mundane, but he uses them as a memory tool. Knowing whether he was in the bedroom or the kitchen when he had a particular conversation helps him recall details for his follow-up memos.

"It helps me remember if I can put it into a context -- writing down where I am. So if I'm in my house, I will write down what room I'm in."

Graham says some people have misinterpreted his frequent listing of "bedroom-bathroom" as a log of his bodily functions. He says it's actually just a reference to the bedroom-bathroom area of his house.

"That doesn't mean I'm going to the bathroom," he says. "I'm in that space for purposes of recall."

As for logging his meals, Graham -- who recently had surgery to replace his aortic valve -- says they are valuable for tracking his health.

"If you're going to do this, I err on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion," he says. "As to breakfast, maybe at some point you want to look back and say, 'Have I changed my nutritional habits over the last couple of years? What was I eating two years ago and how does it compare to today?' I record my weight for the same reason."

(The notebooks indicate his weight has remained stable in the 180s since he arrived in the Senate 16 years ago.)

In the 2000 campaign, after Gore failed to pick Graham as a finalist to be his running mate, the New York Times reported that Graham "was hurt by his habit of filling diaries with mundane aspects of his day, a practice some in the Gore campaign worried would be viewed as eccentric."

But three Gore aides now say Graham's habit did not play a role. Gore simply preferred the other finalists, Sens. John Kerry, John Edwards and Joseph Lieberman, they say. Another factor: Gore and Graham had never been especially close.

"I don't believe the notebooks were a factor at all," said Ron Klain, a senior adviser to Gore.

Rewinding Ace Ventura

[AP photo: 2002]
Sen. Graham speaks during a campaign stop last November in West Palm Beach for Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride. As a likely presidential candidate, Graham’s meticulous note-taking is getting increased attention.

Many people have mocked Graham about the notebooks.

When he gave a speech on Gore's behalf two years ago in Nashville, Republican activists stood outside and distributed fliers with fake notebook entries that said, "stay away from Buddhist Temple jokes."

Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, says the senator's notebooks are "obsessive-compulsive" and are likely to be controversial in the campaign.

"There is no way they can explain this as normal. If they are going to explain this, they have to say why he has this abnormality and why it doesn't matter," Sabato said. "Americans want their president to be a real president, they want to relate to that person. Can anyone relate to this?"

But Chamberlin, the former Graham aide, says the notebooks keep the senator's life in order.

"It's like doing a certain number of pushups every day -- it's a discipline," she says.

That's crucial in politics, Chamberlin says. "Absent discipline, political campaigns are disheveled operations."

Graham uses the notebooks as a management and memory tool, but he rarely records his emotions. He didn't write how he felt about signing death warrants and he didn't describe his fears when a plane he was aboard had a major hydraulic problem.

He is perplexed by the criticism he received after a July 2000 Time magazine article detailed his notebook entries about watching and rewinding the video Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.

"The reporter happened to pick a very non-typical day -- it was a day on which my second grandson was born," he says. "My daughter, the night before she went to the hospital, she was not feeling great, so I invited her to come over and watch the movie. The movie she chose was Ace Ventura. I wrote on the next day that I rewound Ace Ventura and then took it to Blockbuster to return. That became something of a lightning rod."

Why even mention Ace Ventura in the notebook?

"I might ask the question, Why not? 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."

-- Times staff writer Bill Adair can be reached at (202) 463-0575 or by e-mail to

Notes on the notebooks

  • Manufacturer: North Carolina Paper Co.
  • Size: A little smaller than a deck of cards
  • Number Graham has filled: Nearly 4,000 since 1977.
  • Number he has left: Hundreds.
  • Number of days documented in each one: two to three

Click here for an archive of recent Times coverage of Sen. Graham

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