Former Gov. Bob Graham pens some lessons for the little ones | Bill Cotterell
If you’re familiar with Bob Graham’s books on heavy government stuff, his latest literary effort might come as a pleasant surprise.
Graham, a pivotal figure in Florida politics through two terms as governor and three as a U.S. Senator, has turned his grandchildren’s bedtime stories into some little life lessons. It’s a happy change of pace.
At the end of his Washington tenure in 2004, he published “Intelligence Matters,” a sly word play in which “matters” can be read as both a verb and a noun. The non-fiction work was drawn largely from his service as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
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As governor, and as a candidate before then, Graham had become concerned that too many citizens — mostly young people — have no idea of how government works, how it affects their lives or how to deal with it. Some high schoolers in Jacksonville once complained about food in their cafeteria, but didn’t know where to take their problem — the sheriff? School board? A legislator?
A result was “America: The Owner’s Manual.” That was a how-to civics handbook for understanding what the executive, legislative and judicial branches do at different levels of government.
After leaving office, he turned to fiction with “Keys to the Kingdom,” a novel about terrorism and the Middle East. As Graham had just finished his time with the post-9/11 select commission on terrorism, everybody assumed it was a roman á clef thinly disguising actual events, but Graham insisted the tale was just fiction.
So what does an octogenarian political legend with such weighty real-world experience do next?
Graham recently released a children’s book, “Rhoda the Alligator,” based on a bedtime story he’s been telling his 11 grandchildren for several years. This short, brightly illustrated little book, aimed at preschoolers and kindergarten kids, combines two lessons close to Graham’s heart — acceptance of personal differences and the importance of the Everglades.
“It’s a tale meant to empower the listener, and now the reader, with a simple yet forceful message: Embrace the unique qualities and exceptional gifts each of us has to offer the world,” Graham wrote in an afterword.
Rhoda is born blue and orange, a choice probably influenced by Graham’s education and the government institute bearing his name at the University of Florida. Other gators make fun of her and Rhoda at first lashes back at a male tormentor, pointing out that he’s not exactly the George Clooney of the big lizard world himself.
Her mother teaches her how to relate to others, and Rhoda soon shows the other baby gators that there’s more to personal value than anything on the outside. It’s a simple message, written for little kids who can relate to its examples of bullying, self-respect and regard for others.
“I have been telling Rhoda’s story to my grandchildren and their cousins and friends for 10 years now,” Graham writes in a postscript. With three of the children, he says, “we decided it would be fun to turn my Rhoda nighttime story into a children’s book.”
He added a tribute to his grandchildren's contribution to his writing, “I could not have captured Rhoda’s childlike joy without their help and love.”
Although the story is written as a “read out loud” for children, Graham includes a message for the grownups about the Everglades, the nation’s third-largest national park. As governor and in Congress, he was a strong advocate of cleaning up the “river of grass” that now covers 1.5 million acres — which he notes is less than half its size before drainage and development encroached.
“If you’ve never seen the Everglades, I implore you to imagine it as more than a ‘swamp’ (that word implies a murky worthless tract of land),” Graham wrote.
Bill Cotterell is a retired Tallahassee Democrat capitol reporter who writes a twice-weekly column. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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