32 Comments
Apr 22Liked by James Fallows

Thank you for your reply. I don’t know how relevant the text would seem now. I published it in ‘94 to launch a new MH imprint devoted to affordable texts by good to great (like Alan) scholars. The book was derived from a venerable Knopf American history by Current, Williams, and Friedel. They brought on Alan as a co-author, and he subsequently used the co-authored text as the basis for The Unfinished Nation. That said, I think TUN’s title is timeless. It suggests to me an America with a strong core culture that can learn from its mistakes and right its wrongs—kind of the vision of Stephen King’s main character (pre assasinations, Vietnam, etc.) in his novel 11-22-63. Anyway, I have a copy of the Unfinished Nation and am going to take a look at it to see how well the book holds up.

Expand full comment
Apr 22Liked by James Fallows

Great piece. Would be such a refreshing development if some other name politicians would follow Graham’s example of sampling real-life jobs.

Graham’s civics orientation brings to mind a perspective on America, one that seems to be slipping away today, that historian Alan Brinkley tried to capture in a college text that I had the privilege of publishing in 1993. The title of the text was The Unfinished Nation.

Expand full comment
author

Thank you.

I had *not* realized that you had this connection with Alan Brinkley, who was an invaluable historian ('Voices of Protest' all too relevant now), and a lovely person. The world lost him far too soon. I will confess that I have not read 'The Unfinished Nation' but have now put it on the list.

Also, I am thinking of Alan just now because of his years as Provost at Columbia. Judgment and perspective like Alan's would be very useful for that university right now.

Expand full comment
Apr 22Liked by James Fallows

Thank you for the remembrance of Bob Graham and shinning light on a part of politics and political history that has been pushed to the edge of present political? civic? discourse. This column also (ever so slightly) touches on the outdated nature of the constitution, something that has come up a few times in your essays recently, and I remember you devoting a fair amount of space to this topic on your blog at The Atlantic.

Not sure if worth delving deeper on how to go forward, a national discussion seems a recipe for disaster at this point. Perhaps the best we can do is to remember, with slightly tinted glasses, how things were truly different "back in the day." And point out, as you have often done, on how people are working together at the local level now, which gives hope as we slog through the present political flying circus (and soon to come AI flying circus).

Expand full comment
author

Thanks very much. I appreciate it on all fronts. Yes, indeed, the US Constitution was designed in and for an entirely different world. And, as I've argued more than a few times (as you've noticed!!), I think US sustained success has been *in spite of* its outdated rules of operation, rather than because of them.

But changing these rules, you also note, is near-impossible on practical grounds and would be unpredictable even if it could occur. So we all keep blundering our way forward.

Appreciate your attention and support.

Expand full comment

Thanks for this fine remembrance of Bob Graham. I have only foggy memories of him. No excuse, I'm old enough, 64. He was that now-seemingly rare thing, a public servant. Thank you, Mr. Graham. Condolences to his family, and thanks to them, too, for sharing him with us.

Amen on the importance of civics in secondary education, though yes, we need a new word or phrase that communicates the urgency of the American concept of self-governance and pluralism. Our system is not intuitive & doesn't lend itself to slogans. And yes, it's radically imperfect, as imperfect as we are. But our children need to understand its aspirational premises.

Jim, maybe you've talked about this before: What are your thoughts on a year of mandatory service for all Americans? It could include the military, but would also include other national needs. Enormously complicated, enormously expensive at first, but gosh it seems we need something like this -- a reminder that we're one country, that all of us are Americans, and that we owe our largest political community something.

I think our leaders ask too little of us, and by their constant appeal to our self-interest, they are impoverishing the country and its citizens. One of the earliest signals to me that the post-9/11 Iraq war was misbegotten was GWB's refusal to consider a tax hike, a national sacrifice, to pay for it.

Expand full comment
author

I appreciate it. And agree on the value of searching for some word other than "civics." Back a century ago, after the wave of turn-of-the-century immigration, there was of course a movement for "Americanization" courses for new arrivals. That's too loaded a term to use any more. But it's the underlying idea.

On service: My view is that anything *mandatory* is no-go. I haven't checked recently, but as of about a decade ago there was only one member of the Senate or House who said he favored mandatory service. That was Charlie Rangel of New York, now age 93, who had been an artillery officer in the Army during the Korean war. Again, he was the *only* person I heard go on the record this way over the past few decades.

Among other things, "mandatory" service implies criminal penalties for those who disagree. Which is a nightmare on many levels.

But I am all in favor of *encouraging* and "incentivizing" service in every way possible. College scholarships; other benefits; "esprit de corps" like the sense of pride in Peace Corps service; and so on. Sometime "soon" I plan to write about the way California has been doing interesting and important work in this regard, with its CalVolunteers program.

Expand full comment

Of course you're right, the criminalization of defying mandatory service would be do far more harm than whatever good the service requirement would bring. I look forward to your piece about CalVolunteers. In the meantime, I'll do some homework on that. I know nothing of it.

Expand full comment
Apr 22Liked by James Fallows

For years now, I've said I wish I could get my hands on the genius who decided that civics instruction was no longer needed in our high schools. For God's sake, man - it's the MOST needed subject in our society, and the adverse effects of its omission are abundantly clear. It needs to be brought back immediately.

Thanks for the reminder about one of the best governors anywhere in the US in the past half century. I lived in FL during the Graham years, and I remember those "days at work," along with his all-round excellent governance. Bob Graham was one of the reasons I abandoned my "Gerald R Ford Republican" roots and began voting Democrat in the mid-1990's.

When I hear things like "all politicians lie," or the more outrageous "all politicians are corrupt," excuses commonly extended when discussing lying and corrupt politicians, I think of people like Bob Graham, Jimmy Carter, and yes - Gerald R Ford. These were genuine "public servants" who took the role of serving the public seriously; in most cases the majority of the public had no knowledge of the personal sacrifices these people made in order to try to make our nation, and the world, better for all of us.

And then you have the sell-aggrandizing opportunists we see these days, whose greatest skill appears to be to imitate public servants and convince us that they, too, have our best interests in mind when what they really want is the honor, power, glory and rewards that come with the job. What a shame that, without those basic lessons in civics that were for so many years mandatory for every American child, there are so many Americans today who fall under the spell of these corrupt charlatans.

Expand full comment
author

Thank you. And very interesting to hear about being in Florida during Graham's time there. My exposure to Florida-life has been 100% limited to visits to Deb's parents after they moved there in the early 1990s. This was after Graham had moved on to the US Senate.

I agree about some leading civic figures from that era — notably including Jimmy Carter, and Graham, and Ford, but also the likes of Dale Bumpers and David Pryor (who died over this past weekend).

Let us hope that the next crop of rising Democrats includes others with this potential. So far the rising crop of Republicans is ... .not encouraging, with the exception of those who have been driven from the party (like Kinzinger).

Expand full comment

Another fascinating column. In particular, thank you for profiling such an unusual, thoughtful person.

Expand full comment
author

Thank you, David. One reason I'm grateful to have this site (and for the attention of readers like you here) is the chance to weigh in about figures like Bob Graham.

Expand full comment

Lovely post Jim about a very interesting man. I appreciate how he worked at "common" jobs on occasion; I learned a lot by working construction for several years, which has made me really appreciate the great divide between folks in the trades and the college educated. I can see both sides.

I certainly agree about the importance of Civics. Seems like Civics was an integral part of secondary school education back in our day.

But maybe it is coming back: I have been asked to develop a high-school level Civics course to teach at our local prison, where I already teach college level Government and Politics. The prison thinks it is important for the inmates to learn how to participate in and affect local government and to understand how it all works so that they can truly be "returning citizens". They are very receptiva and appreciative students.

Re the Election of 2004: Interesting to see your take on Howard Dean. He was an old friend, and I managed his grassroots campaign in So Cal. I was amazed how he attracted so many young people with his straight talk about the travesty of the Iraq War. I really thought that he had a chance, but he had mobilized so many powerful forces against him --- especially the media. The "scream" was a real set-up: I had friends in that room in Iowa, and he was yelling over the loud cheering. But when it was localized on one microphone, all that was broadcast was a crazy man screaming for no reason. Howard is anything but crazy.

Our campaign was the first to use the internet and "weblogs" (blogs) to raise money and raise enthusiasm. The young folks who were inspired by Howard created the techniques that Obama used four years later. So at least we did accomplish something.....

keep on writing, Randy

Expand full comment
author

Randy, thanks. And I'm encouraged (and touched) by your story about teaching civics to "returning citizens." Much as "Americans by choice" — ie, immigrants and naturalized citizens — are much more knowledgeable about and committed to US governing systems than are many "Americans by default," so perhaps these "returning" citizens may be more aware than others who take it all for granted.

Fascinating story about Howard Dean. I was mainly involved in Iraq-war-policy coverage at that time, and didn't really dig into the 2004 campaign. (Though I was in Boston for the Dem convention, where Kerry gave his unfortunate "reporting for duty" address, and the young Obama of course brought down the house with his keynote address.)

Expand full comment
Apr 21Liked by James Fallows

Several years ago, I heard a primary grades schoolteacher talk on the radio about his experience with helping his class document the conditions of playground equipment on their school's premises and then take their recommendations to a school board meeting, where they successfully lobbied for improvements. That is civics, taught well.

Expand full comment
author

Thanks. Yes, this was one of the messages / lessons from Deb's and my travels in the 'Our Towns' era. When you could focus people on the tangible, and the local, and have them deal with their counterparts as actual human beings, not "the other" in political or ethnic terms, you could get a lot done. And it teaches people *so much* more than the one zillionth report about "Congressional gridlock" "the mess in Washington."

Expand full comment
Apr 21Liked by James Fallows

Fallows wrote: As Graham wrote in an op-ed in the Tampa Bay Times back in 2017:

"What is going on? One significant, under-the-radar reason is that since the 1970s there has been a virtual collapse in the teaching of civics. Two generations of Americans and Floridians have finished their high school education with little or no instruction in what it means to be a citizen in a democracy. They have never learned the centrality of civility and reasoned compromise in a democracy or the rights, responsibilities and skills necessary to be an effective citizen."

Such an important article, Mr Fallows, honoring Mr Graham and, more importantly, his actions that flowed from his values. Thank you.

Expand full comment
author

Thanks for reading and for your gracious words. The fight goes on!

Expand full comment
Apr 21Liked by James Fallows

Jim ‘Civics’ is a strange word for many of our younger generation. As a kid in a middle school ‘civics’ class I was exposed to how our local government functioned. A visit to our local volunteer fire company highlighted the essential role of volunteers in our society. At an early age ‘checks and balances’ didn’t refer to my small savings account but, rather, to how the Executive/

Legislature/Judiciary interrelated so that no one branch could run rampant over another.

Sometime later, the military draft was universal for males, although some males learned how to work the system to avoid service. [Bone Spur Trump no longer remembers which ankle had the bone spur in the medical opinion, written by a doctor who was renting his office from Trump’s dad; that resulted in his being disqualified for service.]

The draft was ended in 1973. I have one immediate relative who has completed military service. None of my five grand children would consider military Service or a civilian equivalent such as the Peace Corps.

During my 23 years teaching history/economics at a community college, I found that very few of my students, who had completed several high school years studying American history, had any knowledge or grasp of the Constitution. Indeed, one of my students thought that the three branches of government were CBS, NBC, and ABC.

I recall when bipartisanship and compromise were not dirty words. Today they seem exceptional, as witness what has occurred to House speaker Johnson, when he finally sought to apply common sense to such core issues as funding government and providing imperative assistance to Ukraine.

Now my wife and I fear that politics has become a sporting event where one is obliged to support one team or the other. The idea that bipartisan compromise is appropriate—and crucial to the drafting of the Constitution—is often considered heresy today.

I doubt that I agreed with everything Bob Graham espoused. However I respect him for his dignity and honesty. As a Foreign Service Officer with a rambunctious boots on the ground record in Congo during the 1964 foreign hostage crisis, I felt compelled twice to refuse an ‘invitation’ to join our ambassador in Vietnam. I personally concluded that there was ‘no light at the end of the tunnel.’

Senator Graham, regarding the 2013 Iraqi war, was convinced (as was I) that he was a horrendous error perpetrated by Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld. Graham paid a political price for his honesty. [Senator Al Gore, Sr. lost his re-election in 1970 because of his strong opposition to the Vietnam war.]

I welcome a measured discussion on matters of significance. When it regards such domestic issues as ‘fair taxation’ or what to do about climate change or women’s rights, these deserve an open forum.

Ditto in foreign affairs. As a kid I was tangentially exposed to the ‘America First’ isolationism of Charles Lindbergh. With Trumpists—regarding Ukraine and elsewhere—I again sense the falseness of the ‘America First’ mantra.

My hope (or dream) is that the younger generation would learn ‘civics’ by observing the responsible actions of their elders. WHAT A PIPE DREAM, WHEN WE ARE INVOLVED IN A FIGHT TO PRESERVE THE SOUL OF AMERICA IN WHICH MANY FOLKS SEEM UNAWARE OF WHAT IS AT STAKE.

Expand full comment
author
Apr 21·edited Apr 21Author

Keith, thank you. Again I really am grateful for this context and framing.

When I was a kid in Boomer-era southern Calif, I think that our high-school civics class had some title other than "civics." But the content of them was all about how the US system of government was supposed to work, from the city-council level up through the presidency. We had mock city council; we had mock congress; we had to learn about the three early-20th-century "reforms" that made California governance distinctive. ("Initiative, Referendum, and Recall." They have been mixed blessings, but we had to learn about them.)

And about those high school classes: I think their titles were something like "American Government," plus naturally "California History." But they were essentially "Civics."

Agree about those who have paid the price for stands of principle and policy, notably including Al Gore Sr. And agree about the stakes in the moment.

Expand full comment
Apr 21Liked by James Fallows

Graham must have really been sincere about working the 8 hour shifts. For someone who wasn't it would have turned into a millstone and been quietly jettisoned at a suitable opportunity. Having done a few jobs like those for summer work when I was a student, I recall you learn a lot on the first shift.

Choosing Lieberman for VP was one of the worst decisions Gore made. It looks even worse in the light of what you've told us here.

Expand full comment
author

Thanks. I never saw any of these Workday sessions. But by all accounts Bob Graham really went into them all-out, with no showboating. The collection of photos in the Florida state archives is very interesting. Some of these jobs were purely blue-collar — like clearing stumps and working with asphalt-tanks alongside a road crew. But some of them had exotic skill components. Being a bartender, or the inside-the-ring announcer at a pro wrestling match.

Agree re Gore / Lieberman / Graham. Sigh.

Expand full comment
Apr 21Liked by James Fallows

James, I’m 70 years old. As a politically-aware junior high school and high school student, I lived through the assassinations of the 1960s. I also lived through the quagmire of the Vietnam War, and all the historic upheavals that followed.

In my mind, however, the greatest – and most devastating – “hinge of history” I have lived through was the George Bush versus Al Gore election. Our world would be so much better off today if Vice President Gore had become president of the United States.

Like you, it almost breaks my heart to think what may have happened if Bob Graham had been on the ticket as the vice presidential candidate instead of Joe Lieberman. He was far better prepared, and I think, a better man for the job than Senator Lieberman.

Thanks for this column giving Florida’s beloved Bob Graham his due. He deserved every praiseworthy word you wrote.

Expand full comment
Apr 22Liked by James Fallows

Agreed that Lieberman on the ticket was disastrous for Gore and, thus, for the nation as a whole. There was no silver lining in the domestic and foreign policy blunders which were the defining characteristic of the George W. Bush administration.

But there is no way to know what would have happened to a President Gore following September 11, 2001. Perhaps a Gore Administration would have detected the plot before it was carried out, but if not and the attack happened on his watch, just think of the Republican response. He certainly would have been impeached. Maybe not convicted in a 50-50 Senate. But he would not have been able to get authorization to respond sensibly to the attack; a Republican House would have blocked whatever Gore attempted to do. And recall that it was in the Bush-Gore dispute that we started to see the violence that Republicans were capable of and the sense of entitlement to rule, attributes that have only become more evident in the years following. There could have been a very violent response against a President Gore who failed to prevent 9/11. All speculation, of course, but we are where we are, and we have to deal with matters as they are today.

Expand full comment
author

Agree on the details and unknowability of any "what if??" history.

If Gore had chosen Bob Graham, or if for other reason Florida had gone the other way (or something else had happened) and Gore had been sworn in, there are only two things we can be *sure* of.

One is that GW Bush would have pursued his real passion, and probably become commissioner of Major League Baseball. This is sort of a joke, but not really. Bug Selig has claimed that GWB almost replaced him as MLB commissioner in the late 1990s—ie, before the 2000 race. Again, not a certainty, but a tantalizing possibility.

The other near certainty is that Samuel Alito would not have ended up in control of millions of women's fate.

Beyond that it's all guesswork. And, as you say, we play the cards we have been dealt.

Expand full comment

I'm also 70, and I agree with everything you have said here. And I don't know why in hell Gore chose Lieberman, of all people. Having him on the ticket was like having a bad string on your violin.

Expand full comment
author

Thanks for your very gracious note. I have lived through one more presidential-election cycle than you have, and all those traumatic events you mention.

But, yes, I agree. The moment when the Bush v. Gore verdict was handed down is *the* main before-and-after moment in our modern history.

Expand full comment

This is another great piece, not only boomers need to be reminded, but hopefully younger demographics as well

Expand full comment
author

Bob, thank you very much. I really appreciate it.

Expand full comment
Apr 21Liked by James Fallows

I had forgotten that Graham was on the short list for VP in 2000. The might-have-beens in this case do not detract from your larger thesis about him, but add poignancy to his legacy.

Expand full comment
author

Yes, thank you.

There are *so* many "if not for that...." issues about the 2000 election. Nader. Butterfly Ballots. "Brooks Brothers Riot." The swing state's governor being the *brother* of the candidate. The vote that Sandra Day O'Connor later said she regretted. And so on.

But the choice of Lieberman, over Graham, looks ever larger as time goes on.

Expand full comment