The Magazine

The Charisma Tour

From the September 1 / September 8, 2003 issue: The Graham family "vacations" in Iowa.

Sep 1, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 48 • By MATT LABASH
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Des Moines, Iowa

Can you feel the excitement? I can. It's hard not to, here on downtown's Grand Avenue, as we assemble for the Iowa State Fair parade. Iowa-bred writer Bill Bryson once wrote, "I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to." Adding insult, he called Des Moines "the most powerful hypnotic known to man." But he obviously never went to the parade. Everybody loves a parade. Especially presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich. "This is it!" he says. "Where else would you want to be?"

Got me there, Dennis. I mean, just look at these parade exhibits. There's the WB frog, the Wal-Mart employees looking their blue-vested best, the umbrella brigade, twirling umbrellas in time to ABBA's "Take a Chance on Me." There's a herd of obedience-school puppies, the gals from Becky's Dance Studio, and the Roberts' Dairy truck, complete with giant plastic cow and mooing horn. But I have not come to see any of that. I have come to see Florida senator Bob Graham, or, as his family calls him, the "44th President of the United States."

It's pretty exciting, all right, meeting the man "Politics in America" says has a "studied quality" to everything he does, and whose "caution and attention to detail" mean that any mistakes he makes are "apt to stem from belated action rather than haste." Okay, so it's not that exciting. But there's Graham, kissing a girl full on the mouth.

I whip out my pad, prepared to document the first indiscretion of the campaign cycle. But it turns out to be his granddaughter Sarah. There are nine more grandkids where she came from, and they are all here, along with their mothers (Graham's four daughters) and fathers, as well as Graham's wife, Adele. That makes 20 in all, and they have come--and this is exciting--for the annual "Graham Family Vacation." Every year, the Graham family vacations together in places like the Grand Canyon, the Grand Tetons, or the Caribbean. But just five months before the Iowa caucuses, the Graham family coincidentally decided to pack two RVs, a couple of luggage vans, and a media bus, and take a tour of Iowa. One can almost hear the children begging, as children do everywhere, "Grandpa, take us to lunch with the Warren County Democrats, and then on to the John L. Lewis Mining and Labor Museum!"

There are only two actual candidates at the parade (Graham and Kucinich), but almost every campaign has a contingent marching. The Howard Dean campaign, like the candidate, is loud and slightly obnoxious, cranking James Brown's "Get Up" from speakers that they hold up to the windows of their pace car. But they are drowned out by a raspy and repeated hog call of "WHOOOOO! You got it Dad!" It comes from Cissy, the second of Graham's four daughters (who range in age from 34 to 40).

The Graham family, it should be noted, is a White House-ready family. They are the Kennedys without the extramarital affairs and bad livers. The grandsons are all buddies who easily throw their arms around each other. And the granddaughters are model-quality, many boasting ringlets of natural curls. The sons-in-law (Cissy is married to William McCullough, son of author David McCullough) are generous and quick-witted and don't mind reporters' flirting with their wives. And those wives--the entity known as the Graham girls--are all attractive and warm, the surest bet to become the sex symbols of the 2004 cycle, assuming their dad's around long enough. They are like the Gore girls of last cycle, only better. The Gore girls were girls. The Graham girls are women.

They are the same, but different. In girl-band archetypes, the oldest, Gwen, would be Posh Spice--smoldering and fashionable, and their nominal leader. Suzanne, number three, is the Ginger Spice-ish bad girl--"bad girl" being a relative term in the Graham family, meaning that she's the one who'll wear the non-uniform article of clothing (anything without Bob Graham's name on it). Kendall, the youngest, is Baby Spice. When I ask Cissy which one would be Strong and Silent Spice, she points to Gwen. "She's strong, but not silent. None of us are silent," which Cissy proves by letting out another ear-splitting "WHOOOOO!"

The politicians, stuck near the back of the processional, are all set to march. But in an unfortunate bit of stagecraft, they're forced to wait as clowns shovel horse droppings (from the mounted police) into a bulldozer bucket. The clowns miss a few, however, and Graham's striking wife, Adele, steps in one. It doesn't ruffle her. A lifetime political wife (married to Graham throughout his two terms as Florida governor and three terms as senator), she has encountered her fair share of manure. She maintains a regal bearing that is best conveyed not in words, but in song. Specifically, "My Beautiful Adele": My beautiful Adele / You are more than words could ever tell.