Born in Coral Gables, Florida, Graham won election to the Florida Legislature after graduating from Harvard Law School. After serving in both houses of the Florida Legislature, Graham won the 1978 Florida gubernatorial election, and was reelected in 1982. In the 1986 Senate elections, Graham defeated incumbent Republican Senator Paula Hawkins. He helped found the Democratic Leadership Council and eventually became Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Graham ran for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, but dropped out before the first primaries. He declined to seek reelection in 2004 and retired from the Senate.
Graham served as co-chair of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling and as a member of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission and the CIA External Advisory Board. He works at the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Florida. He also served as Chairman of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD proliferation and terrorism. Through the WMD policy center he advocates for the recommendations in the Commission's report, "World at Risk." In 2011 Graham published his first novel, the thriller The Keys to the Kingdom. He has also written three nonfiction books: Workdays: Finding Florida on the Job, Intelligence Matters, and America: The Owner's Manual.
Graham was born in Coral Gables, Florida, the son of Hilda Elizabeth (née Simmons), a schoolteacher, and Ernest R. Graham, a Florida state senator, mining engineer, and dairy/cattleman. He is the youngest of four children. His siblings are Philip Graham, former publisher of the Washington Post; William Graham of Miami Lakes, Florida; and Mary Crow. He married Adele Khoury, of Miami Shores, in 1959. They have four daughters: Gwen Graham, Cissy Graham McCullough, Suzanne Graham Gibson and Kendall Graham Elias. The Grahams also have 11 grandchildren.
Bob Graham attended Miami Senior High School from 1952 to 1955; he was Student Body President his senior year. He was International Trustee of the Key Club, the Kiwanis service organization. While at Miami High Graham was the recipient of the Sigma Chi Award, the school's highest honor. He received a bachelor's degree in 1959 in political science from the University of Florida, where he was a member of the Epsilon Zeta chapter of Sigma Nu fraternity and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, the University of Florida Hall of Fame and Florida Blue Key. He went on to receive an LLB from Harvard Law School in 1962. His eldest brother, Philip (1915–1963), was also a Harvard Law alum.
Graham was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1966 and reelected in 1967 and 1968, each time representing all of Dade County. He was elected to the Florida Senate in 1970, also from Dade County. Redistricted into a seat encompassing portions of northern Dade and southern Broward County, Graham was reelected to District 33 in 1972 and 1976.
Bob Graham's campaign trademark was to work a full eight-hour day at various jobs that represented Florida's constituents. He began his "Workdays" in 1974, teaching a semester of civics at Miami Carol City Senior High School in Miami while serving in the Florida Senate. At that time, Bob Graham was chairman of the Education Committee. After a speech, M. Sue Riley, an English teacher at Carol City, approached Bob Graham and said, "The only problem with members of the Education Committee is nobody has any experience in education." Bob Graham was taken aback at that assertion and asked, "Well, what can I do about that?" A few months later, Ms. Riley contacted Senator Graham with a proposal to teach the next semester of civics. Following that teaching experience, he performed 102 additional work days during his successful 1978 gubernatorial campaign. Graham has continued doing workdays throughout his tenure as governor and in the United States Senate. His jobs have included service as a police officer, busboy, railroad engineer, construction worker, fisherman, garbageman, factory worker, and teacher. On No. 365, he checked in customers, handled baggage and helped serve passengers on US Airways. He totaled 408 work days.
Bob Graham was elected Governor of Florida in 1978 after a seven-way Democratic primary race in which he initially placed second to Robert L. Shevin. His supporters at the time dubbed themselves "Graham crackers." With this victory, he realized his father's dream: Cap Graham had run unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination to be Governor of Florida back in 1944. Graham was re-elected in 1982 with 65 percent of the vote, having defeated the Republican nominee, U.S. Representative L. A. "Skip" Bafalis of Palm Beach.
Graham emphasized education, and placed a focus on improvement of the public universities in the state. By the end of his second term the state university system was among the first quartile of state systems in America, and its public schools and community colleges had substantially improved their academic standing.
In addition, Graham's administration focused on economic diversification and environmental policies. During his tenure as governor, the state added 1.2 million jobs, and for the first time in state history the per capita income of Floridians exceeded the US average. For three of his eight years Florida was rated by the accounting firm Grant Thornton as having the best business climate of all states in the union.
Graham also launched the most extensive environmental protection program in the state's history, focused on preserving endangered lands. During his tenure thousands of acres of threatened and environmentally important lands were brought into state ownership for permanent protection. His keystone accomplishment was the establishment of the Save the Everglades program, which has now been joined by the federal government in a commitment to restore the Everglades.
Graham left the governorship with an 83% approval rating. According to the New York Times, Graham was considered one of the most popular politicians in Florida.
Graham was then elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986, defeating incumbent Sen. Paula Hawkins 55 to 45 percent. He was reelected in 1992 (over Bill Grant, 66%–34%) and 1998 (over Charlie Crist, 63%–37%) and chose not to seek reelection in 2004. Upon retiring from the Senate in January 2005, Graham had served 38 consecutive years in public office.
During his 18 years in the Senate, Graham served on the environment and finance committees, and was a founding member of the Democratic Leadership Council. He was also active on veteran's issues and foreign policy, including chairing the US-Spain Council, for which he received the highest civilian recognition for a non-Spaniard by King Juan Carlos.
Graham served 10 years on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which he chaired during and after 9/11 and the run-up to the Iraq war. He led the joint congressional investigation into 9/11. As Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Graham opposed the War in Iraq and was one of the 23 Senators who voted against President Bush's request for authorization of the use of military force. After meeting with military leaders in February 2002, and requesting and reviewing a National Intelligence Estimate, he said he "felt we were being manipulated and that the result was going to distract us from where our real enemies were". He continued to oppose the Iraq War, saying in 2008: "I'm afraid I never wavered from my belief that this was a distraction that was going to come to a bad end in Iraq and an even worse end in Afghanistan"
In 2004 Graham published Intelligence Matters: The CIA, the FBI, Saudi Arabia and the Failure of America's War on Terror. In September 2008 the book was released in paperback with a new preface and postscript.
Graham has a well-known habit of meticulously logging his daily activities (some as mundane as when he ate a tuna sandwich or rewound a tape of Ace Ventura) on color-coded notebooks, which some say may have cost him a spot on past vice-presidential tickets. The notebooks are now housed at the University of Florida library. A great advocate for his home state, Graham always kept Florida orange juice on hand in his Senate office and was rarely seen without his trademark Florida tie.
Graham was considered as a Democratic nominee for Vice President of the United States in 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2004. He was a finalist on Bill Clinton's shortlist of running mates in 1992, and was reportedly on Al Gore's shortlist in 2000.
In December 2002 Graham announced his candidacy for President of the United States in the 2004 election. On January 31, 2003, he had open-heart surgery and his campaign faltered. He withdrew his candidacy on October 7, 2003. In November, he announced that he would not seek another term in the Senate. After John Kerry became the presumptive Democratic nominee for president in March 2004, some discussed the possibility that Graham would be on the shortlist of Kerry's choices for running mate.
After teaching at Harvard University for the 2005–06 academic year, Graham focused on founding a center to train future political leaders, at the University of Florida – where he earned his bachelor's degree in political science in 1959.
The UF Center, known as the Bob Graham Center for Public Service, is housed in the university's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences the Center provides students with opportunities to train for future leadership positions, and the university community to engage with policy makers and scholars. On February 9, 2008, The James and Alexis Pugh Hall funded by longtime friends of the Graham's was dedicated in the historic area of the UF campus. Pugh Hall serves as the home of the Center, as well as the university's oral history and African and Asian languages programs.
In spring 2009 Graham published America, The Owner's Manual: Making Government work for you, a book about inspiring and teaching citizens to effectively participate in democracy.
Since his retirement from the Senate, Graham has published almost 70 op-eds on state and national issues. He is also a member the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.
Graham's most recent venture was to create the Florida Conservation Coalition, which aims to unite numerous environmental groups to lobby the Florida governor and legislature on environmental issues in Florida.
The Graham dairy farm transformed Miami Lakes, a residential and commercial new town community, in 1963 under the leadership of Graham's brother William. To this day, Bob Graham still owns a significant share of the Graham Companies, and serves on the board of directors. To avoid a potential conflict of interest, his various investments, including his share in the Miami Lakes development, are managed by a proxy and reported to Graham at the end of each year. Graham's total net worth is reported to be between $7.35 million and $31.7 million.
On November 18, 2005, the Florida Legislature renamed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which was rebuilt during Graham's time as governor, the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
On May 6, 2006, at the spring commencement for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the University of Florida awarded Graham an honorary doctorate, the Doctor of Public Service.