Politican as self-tracker – Bob Graham’s notebooks

notebooks.jpgPoliticians have always been self-trackers. In the flow of political action, you need a notebook just to keep track of people’s names. But when a recent political controversy was resolved by the notebooks of the most conscientious self-tracker in the history of the United States Senate, the reputation of people interested in personal data got an unexpected boost.

To understand this story, you have to remember how strange it seems to many people that anybody would want to keep a record of the seemingly mundane details of their existence. What could such a document possibly be for?  Here at QS we like to talk about new possibilities for science, self-experiment, art, medicine, and self-knowledge. But whenever I get a call from a newspaper reporter (see here and here), I am reminded how strange self-tracking seems to those who don’t do it.

Enter Bob Graham, ex-Governor and ex-Senator from Florida. Graham has been keeping careful handwritten records of his daily life since 1977, when he first ran for governor. He tracks a lot of things: weight, diet, what he wears, his location (down to the room), and of course the names of the people he meets with, his questions and their answers, his promises and theirs.

Good idea, right? Well, it was considered such an inexplicable eccentricity that some in the press actually speculated it made Al Gore think twice about offering him the vice-presidential nomination in the 2000 U.S. election season, and three years later, when the next round of presidential campaigning got underway, Adam Nagourney of The New York Times wrote:

“The penchant of Senator Bob Graham to keep detailed notebooks
chronicling the most mundane of chores — think: got up, got out of
bed, dragged a comb across my head — may give Democrats pause.”

Why? It’s too geeky, that’s why. Who cares if it helps you perform your job better, focuses your mind, and keeps details from slipping from your grasp. Who cares if it helps you manage your diet, maintain your weight, and understand your colleagues better. Don’t you understand? It’s geeky!

Well, there was a noisy politically controversy recently over whether culpability for torturing suspects arrested after the terror attacks of 9-11 should be shared by Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The CIA claimed that Pelosi had been briefed in detail about the torture, and didn’t make any objection until long afterward. Therefore, if there is to be any kind of sanction for torture, it should hit the top Democrat who approved it as well as members of the Republican administration who ordered it. Pelosi, though, denies having been briefed about the torture.

Well, it turns out that Bob Graham was also supposed to have been briefed on these topics, and the CIA forwarded to him the dates of the meetings he supposedly attended. But the CIA records were inaccurate, according to his own personal records. Such was the respect for Graham’s notebooks, that this line of attack was closed within 48 hours.

This is interesting for several reasons. First, it’s worth noting that one man’s spiral bound notebooks were able to accumulate enough credibility to defeat the records of an organization whose very reason for existence is to collect information, communicate it to trusted members of government, and keep records of these communications. Anybody who has been following some of the controversy about patient records can add this strange example to their list of favorite anecdotes. Personal data, kept by a dedicated and interested party, even using yesterday’s technology, will trump large scale collection systems managed by bureaucrats.

But the cultural resonance is also important. Watch the video below, in which talking-head Rachel Maddow explains the controversy. Notice how condescending she is about Graham’s disciplined collection of personal data. But by the end, she is forced to admire the triumph of good individual records over bad institutional ones. “Nerds, 1; Spies, 0″ she proclaims.

Finally, a technical note. I was interested to see that in one of the interviews with Graham he specifically justifies keeping track of his location down the room, which is one of the “quirky” details that people like to mention. He says, plausibly, that recording his location at this level of specificity is a memory aid, allowing the topic of a conversation which may only be briefly mentioned in the notebook to flow back into his mind. This is a good idea! Life-loggers, start your notebooks.

From the St. Petersburg Times, some data about Bob Graham’s notebooks:

  • Manufacturer: North Carolina Paper Co.
  • Size: A little smaller than a deck of cards
  • Number Graham has filled: Nearly 4,000 since 1977.
  • Number he has left: Hundreds.
  • Number of days documented in each one: two to three

From NPR, an excerpt from the story about the impact of Graham’s notebooks:

Graham is known as a meticulous note-taker and has maintained a
daily log that fills hundreds of spiral notebooks, which now reside at
the University of Florida Library of Florida History. “Several
weeks ago, when this issue started to bubble up, I called the CIA and
asked for the dates in which I had been briefed,” Graham tells Robert
Siegel. “They gave me four: two in April of ’02, two in September.”

Graham says he consulted his logs “and determined that on three of the four dates there was no briefing held.” He
adds: “On one date, Sept. 27, ’02, there was a briefing held and,
according to my notes, it was on the topic of detainee interrogation.”

Graham says the CIA was initially reticent when he told the agency what he had found in his notes. “They
said, ‘We will check and call back,’” Graham recalled. “When they
finally did a few days later, they indicated that I was correct. Their
information was in error. There was no briefing on the first three of
four dates.”

Graham says the agency offered no explanation regarding how it came up with the other dates.

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15 Responses to Politican as self-tracker – Bob Graham’s notebooks

  1. Andy D. says:

    He documents two to three days in a single notebook? I suspect a mental illness.

  2. charles platt says:

    Cannot imagine doing this by hand and pen. I simply maintain a totally dumb plaintext document with no structure (no database fields), allowing the most versatile subsequent searching. When I am doing consulting work on an hourly paid basis, it also provides an answer if the client questions my time. The scary thing to me is that Bob Graham is regarded as odd for recording his activities; isn’t that what legislators should be doing? They have aides for this kind of thing, don’t they?

  3. Elias says:

    Well, let’s just say a senator has a lot more things flying around his head on any given day compared to us so although it might sound anal it can be justified.

  4. CL Jahn says:

    Benjamin Franklin kept this kind of journal; “The only way a man can know what he has done, is to keep an accurate record of it.” He also tracked his diet, health, weather, as well as all his ventures in business, science, and politics.

  5. Stephen says:

    It goes without saying that this man would be incredible on the witness stand. It’s the sort of thing that you would never question again after it’s come in handy, and if beating the CIA’s claims isn’t handy I don’t what is.

  6. Gary Wolf says:

    @Charles Platt – One of the interesting things that was shown at a QS Show&Tell was Ka Ping Yee’s “time allocation diary.” Like you, he tracks his activities with plain text. But he wrote a little program that allows him to do this in a window that is always open on his computer, and his entries are automatically time-stamped. Without subjecting himself to any rigid structure, he gets into the habit of using keywords in his entries (“fun” “work” “dissertation” … whatever). This means that although he only enters short, plaintext notes, he can easily analyze his time if he wants using the time-stamps and keywords. Here is a post that shows one of his charts:
    @Andy D. – the notebooks are very small (smaller than a pack of cards), and he has a lot of meetings.

  7. Jessica Mullen says:

    How long do you think it took for Graham’s notebooks to become more credible than the CIA’s records? Also, do you think Graham ever lies in his notebooks? I wonder if they have they kept him from affairs, drug binges, etc.

  8. FreeDem says:

    I certainly hear no condescension there, more awe than condescension.

  9. Beth says:

    Great post, but I wouldn’t characterize Rachel’s comments as condescending either. More snarky that the notebooks are the reason the CIA has to say “my bad.”

  10. David says:

    It’s ironic that the content of the notebooks that would be considered most geeky is precisely the kind of drivel that appears most frequently on Twitter, Facebook, and countless blogs in the first few years of blogging. In other words, it’s still considered eccentric if one keeps this information for personal betterment (even if no less than Benjamin Franklin kept detailed daily notes), but it’s forward-looking to post it online.
    1942: posted a message on the QS blog.

  11. citizen49a says:

    To the poster who remarked “Also, do you think Graham ever lies in his notebooks? I wonder if they have they kept him from affairs, drug binges, etc.”
    You obviously didn’t live in Florida during the eight years that Bob Graham was governor. Bob’s the total boring nice guy nerd. It’s no act with Bob, he’s got those old fashioned ideas about public service as the highest calling, etc., etc.
    He really had no business up there among the conman and criminals in the Senate. The old Graham cracker belongs back down here where he came from. It’s too bad he can’t run for governor again, when guys like him, Ruben Askew, and Lawton Chiles were leading this state it was decent place to live.
    Now it’s in contention for the white collar crime capital of the United States, although it’ll still probably be a few years until we can knock out Jersey

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