David Johnson: The great debate of ’98 and how Bob Graham stole the show

Legends do not pass our way often. Peace and comfort to his family and friends.

In 1998, I was the Deputy Executive Director of the Republican Party of Florida. Our Chair, the legendary Tom Slade, and my Executive Director, Randy Enwright, sent me to St. Petersburg to help with debate prep for U.S. Senate nominee Charlie Crist.

That’s Republican U.S. Senate nominee Charlie Crist, if you are keeping score at home.

Charlie was running a not-so-well-funded campaign, strategically based on 4′ x 8′ signs, a little direct mail, and the uncanny ability to find, show up, and politely try to get on stage at every Jeb Bush event. But he did have one great earned media opportunity that October — Tim Russert was moderating a live, statewide broadcast television debate on a Monday night from the Mahaffey Theater.

Being 1998, that was a big deal with the less-fractured cable audience and, with no screens or streams to distract, it was a chance. “Free statewide! You know it, Chief!”

Of course, the opponent was the popular powerhouse U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, running far ahead, almost putting Charlie a lap behind on the track in polling. So Slade and Randy said, ‘Go down there and help him; we don’t want him to be crushed,’ especially because Jeb was debating Buddy MacKay the very next night, same time, same location, same Tim Russert. There was understandable concern a poor performance would spark lousy headlines in advance of the main event.

The 1994 campaign lost altitude when Lawton Chiles puzzled Jeb in a late debate, the famous “He-Coon” incident. There would be no stone unturned in 1998.

So I prepared my briefing books all week, packed my Compaq Armada laptop, which weighed about fifteen pounds and had little memory, and even bought a portable printer for all the good work I was going to do — by golly, this was important — and I flew to Tampa on Thursday night on the old Continental 19-seater — the one where you felt like if you flew 25 missions, you were getting shipped home.

Charlie seemed very happy I was coming to help and invited me to his parent’s home where we could prep on Friday. It was a beautiful October morning on Snell Isle. Dr. and Mrs. Crist greeted me at the door, the smell of freshly baked cinnamon rolls through the house, and they kindly asked me questions about my life and how I got here, genuinely nice people. Charmed, I sure was.

Charlie wandered into the kitchen, tan, but tired from a long two weeks on the road, he said, and after a little campaign chat and him eyeballing the briefing notebooks, he said he was going to read them, relax in the sun and make a few calls. And how about we get together later in the day? Absolutely, I agreed.

Except I never heard from him again that weekend. By late Friday, I was slightly concerned. All day Saturday and all day Sunday, nothing. I was a mess, pacing around a Ramada hotel room. There were no return calls, and his campaign manager, Jim Rimes, said he was resting and would be available later…he hoped…but nothing. He had a chatty intern named Peter something or another, who was absolutely no help at all.

After a sleepless night, Monday rolled around, and my nerves were shot. My brick of a cellphone rang, and it was Chairman Slade calling to let me know he was on his way to St. Pete and to see how the debate preparation went. “How…is…our…pupil?” he drawled.

“Well, Chairman,” I stammered, trying to delay the inevitable, “It’s been quite a weekend, and I know he is tan. I just hope he is rested and ready.”

“Good to hear, DJ Johnson, I have another call and see…you…soon.”

Potential missile dodged.

So I get to the debate site way early, and Charlie is in makeup. “Oooh, sorry, chief, but those books were soooo helpful. I just like to prepare in my own way.”

Now, I don’t know if he was just being unfailingly polite. And I never knew if he even glanced at the fruit of my federal policy labor. Even though he had ghosted me all weekend, I was nervous for him, and I was nervous for me. Would disaster strike?

So the debate happened, and it was really amazing to watch from the wings. Charlie was charming, Sen. Graham was charming, and no one said anything fiery except Charlie delivered by saying many, many things without saying much of anything. He was likable, and made a fine first statewide impression to the point the Graham campaign decided the next debate would not be televised, but a radio debate. Later, Sen. Graham won a decisive victory.

That fine first statewide televised impression of Charlie would punch me in the face about eight years later; that’s another story for another day.

But this is a long way to the good part of this story, and that was the after-party across the street at the Hilton lobby bar. About a dozen of us Republicans were hanging around, some had been toiling on races in the Tampa Bay area and we were comparing notes. I confessed to an amazed Randy Enwright that I had not actually seen Charlie since Friday, but what an outcome. We were avoiding any bad stories about that debate. Charlie had performed. I was delighted with my good fortune. Crisis averted, Unwind!

So we had some beers. A couple of the reveler-operatives had started earlier than others, but it was a generally jovial crowd and a good time, and we looked forward to the next night’s debate.

Then, it happened. Out of a side room, having completed dinner, the door swings open and through it strides Bob Graham. And he hears us, sees us, and walks over to us. He looked around and saw shiny faces and standard Republican-issue khaki and navy blue uniforms.

“Hello, I’m Bob Graham…and who are you fine people?”

We were kind of shocked and stammered something about Republicans, and he said, “No…who are YOU?” – and pointed at the first person, who introduced herself.

“And what do you do?”

She quietly got out that she worked in fundraising.

“Oh, that is such an important part of our business. Do you enjoy it? It can be hard asking people for contributions, but I can tell you are very good at it,” he declared.

And then he asked each person about themselves, a little banter, genuinely nice, not pretentious, not an act. This was one-at-a-time communicating by a master.

Bob Graham worked around the circle and got to an overserved fellow who began to tell him why he didn’t like him over some federal policy mishap he slurred about. His rant was returned with a polite, crisp “I see, thank you.” He quickly moved on to the next person, while Captain Morgan was shushed by his friends.

Upon completion of his introduction process, United States Sen. Daniel Robert Graham, in front of a table of empty beer bottles and suddenly star-struck Republicans, asked if we would do him an honor. He was complimentary of Charlie Crist, said he was a gifted and spirited debater and he was certain he would be a statewide presence for years to come.

But would we, on this night, do him the great honor and join him in singing his campaign song, the one he had first run with for Governor back in the day?

And so he taught us the words, and we stood and we sang, more disbelieving and amused than anything, at first tentatively, and then with increasing volume. And we Republican campaigners, with Sen. Bob Graham in the Hilton hotel lobby bar, belted out:

“Bob Graham is a cracker!

Be a Graham Cracker BACKER!

Bob Graham is a cracker. Be a Graham Cracker BACKER!”

We sang, laughed, and cheered. We cheered him. He shook everyone’s hand, wished us well, and then disappeared into the night.

Cellphones were just that in 1998, and there were no photos or recordings of the evening to prove it happened the way I tell it, so you just have to take my word for it. The Senator didn’t jot anything down that night in front of us, but I always wondered if a late log entry mentioned his leading a gang of off-key Republican goobers in song at the Hilton.

I am not sure, but I do think it possible Bob Graham won that Republican bar table-precinct when the votes were counted a couple of weeks later. He smushed Crist with more than 62%, while Jeb won that night 55-45%.

However, I am entirely sure that we need more Bob Grahams in politics, and I am certain Florida will very much miss the one we had.

Legends do not pass our way often. Peace and comfort to his family and friends.

Guest Author


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