Graham Drubs Dubya

Unswayed by Republican counterattacks, Florida Democratic Senator Bob Graham took another swing at Bush last week. Appearing at the 9-11 Commission hearings, he charged that "frustrating" Bush administration inaction was suppressing his congressional joint inquiry report on the World Trade Center attack. Thus, he said, the public doesn't know what the government "knew about Al Qaeda and the potential for terrorist attacks on our homeland before 9-11."

Graham, only recently laughingly discussed as a possible running mate for Kerry or Lieberman, suddenly emerges, along with Senator Robert Byrd, as the hard man of the Democratic Party in Congress—the only potential candidate who actually seems to know anything about Bush's handling of 9-11 and the war on terror. "He should be taken very seriously," said Congressional Quarterly's Craig Crawford, who has followed Graham for two decades. "Graham does not take risks he can't handle. He is no grandstanding bomb thrower."

Still, it's hard to believe. "I mean, we're talking about a politician who state legislators used to call 'Gov. Jello' for his milquetoast manner," wrote Ron Cunningham of the Gainesville, Florida, Sun last week. "A guy the press used to refer to as 'Blobby Bob' for his amazing ability to avoid being pinned down on an actual controversial position (not to be confused with that other, better known nickname, 'Bloody Bob,' for his fierce adherence to his most solidly conservative credential: support for the death penalty). But this is a new Bob Graham."

Graham's chances as a presidential candidate might seem slim, with little or no attraction in either of the early and bellwether contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, but his allure for the Democrats is that he might take Florida from the Republicans. They relish the thought of an election eve debate between Cheney and Graham.

In Nebraska in mid May for a Democratic candidate debate, Graham said the Iraq war was a "distraction" that allowed Al Qaeda to gather itself for the Saudi attack. "Al Qaeda was on the ropes 12 to 14 months ago, but we didn't pursue the war in Afghanistan to its conclusion and break Al Qaeda's backbone," said Graham. He added that the Saudi bombings "could have been avoided if you had actually crushed the basic infrastructure of Al Qaeda."

"That's not a serious statement based on understanding of foreign policy," retorted Ari Fleischer. "It's much more a statement based on somebody who is involved in Democratic presidential primary politics, who is trying to carve out a name or an issue for himself." Florida Republicans jumped at the chance to take a shot at a man who, in the words of GOP Senate hopeful Congressman Mark Foley, was "exploiting the death of Americans in Saudi Arabia to jump-start his fledgling presidential campaign."

But the pros take him seriously. Larry Harris of Mason-Dixon, a polling firm based in D.C. and Florida, said he thinks Graham has a shot at winning the nomination. "I don't think he's interested in being vice president," he said. "He's got the paradigm of being a Southern governor, and if you look at the last three Democratic presidents, they've been Southern governors." Harris went on to point out that the strongest issues for Republicans are military defense and the war on terror and that Graham can compete in those areas because of his experience on military and intelligence panels and because he ran a large state. "He's got the credentials," said Harris. "He's coming to the table with much more than George Bush ever brought to the plate."

Said CQ's Crawford, "Graham is like Tony Soprano playing a college professor, a street-smart tough guy who acts like a nerd. That's how he has whipped the Republicans every time they came after him in Florida."

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It's been a confusing two weeks in the war on terror, leaving even the most knowledgeable person wondering what's really going on:

May 12: Terrorists bomb three housing compounds in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. immediately says it's Al Qaeda.

May 14: At a White House briefing, Ari Fleischer says, "So Al Qaeda does remain a threat, but it is a diminished threat. . . . But if this was Al Qaeda, it does show that they, indeed, remain a threat. And that's why this administration is working so diligently to prosecute this war against Al Qaeda everywhere."

May 20: In morning testimony before Congress, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge says the U.S. is "significantly safer than we were 20 months ago." During the day, however, the terror alert level is raised to Code Orange—"high risk." Ridge insists the decision is based on the now week-old bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco and on intelligence reports of terrorists' intentions.

Later in the day, Ridge explains that the intelligence community believes "Al Qaeda has entered into an operational period worldwide, which may include an attack in the United States." Ridge then adds that there's a lack of "credible, specific information with respect to targets or method of attack."

Meanwhile, the Justice Department presents to the House Judiciary Committee its first accounting of activities under the Patriot Act. Bottom line: The Patriot Act doesn't infringe on civil rights because of Justice's restrained and sensible use, always aimed at preserving civil rights. Justice spokeswoman Barbara Comstock says, "These tools have been very carefully targeted, and when we do use them, it's because there are valid reasons that often involve life and death." The FBI contacted just 50 libraries, and only 10 FBI offices inquired into activities of nearby mosques, resulting in "fewer than 50" people held as material witnesses, 90 percent of them let go within 90 days.

May 21: Under the Code Orange alert, jet fighters fly over major U.S. cities at random intervals. Troops with surface-to-air and shoulder-fired missiles are posted around the D.C. area. Bridge and tunnel checks are promised, along with Coast Guard harbor patrols and tighter nuclear power plant security.

May 22: Officials in D.C., casually responding to the Code Orange alert, keep both the sidewalk in front of the White House and the Capitol open to tours, even though these were closed off during the war. The D.C. police chief says, "You have a very general alert. . . . I mean, Washington, D.C., and Wichita, Kansas, were placed on the same alert." Mayor Anthony Williams remains out of town on a business trip.

The same day, a Washington Post profile suggests that Ridge and consultants were trying to give the Homeland Security Department a heightened image by "branding" it in hopes of giving it an "identity." Reporter Mark Leibovich followed Ridge around for a day and reported that he and his aides appeared to talk an awful lot about this "branding" and "identity." Homeland Security crops up many times in their conversation in terms of "visual brand," "respected brands," and this clincher, courtesy of Ridge himself: "The ultimate branding we do is a sharing of a sense of mission." Ridge's wife shows the reporter bottles of water and other emergency equipment in her basement, noting that waxed dental floss is a great item to have on hand because it can be used to tie things together.

Additional reporting: Joanna Khenkine and Phoebe St John


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