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The Go-to Senator

Lindsey Graham’s recipe for success

Feb 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 20 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Graham’s also known as a cutup with a great sense of humor and comedic timing. During a recent meeting of a group of GOP senators, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin began talking passionately about the need to stop Obamacare from hurting more Americans. They would need to work with the House, Johnson was saying, because things were only going to get worse. It was a serious discussion, but Graham could see it needed some levity, so he broke in. “If you like your Ron Johnson, you can keep your Ron Johnson,” he said. The group burst into laughter.

He also knows how to poke fun at himself. A frequent guest on Greta van Susteren’s Fox News program, Graham has taken to joking with colleagues that it should be renamed the “Lindsey van Graham Show.” Gowdy remembers the first time he met Graham, in 2002, when Graham was running for the Senate for the first time. Gowdy was a state solicitor in Spartanburg, and Graham, a lifelong bachelor, asked how he could win Gowdy’s hometown. “I told him, ‘You need to get married.’ And he laughed and laughed at that,” said Gowdy.

Graham’s personal life is just about the only thing he doesn’t talk about much. He was born in 1955 in Central, a town in South Carolina’s upstate. The state was different back then—segregated, poor, and reliant on a dying textile industry. Graham grew up in the Sanitary Café, the combination pool hall-liquor store-restaurant his parents owned in Central. 

“When you’re raised by a family that owns their own business, you don’t go on many vacations,” Graham tells me. “You’ve got to go to work no matter how you feel.”

Central is just down the road from Clemson University, but Graham opted to attend the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where he became the first in his family to graduate from college. In 1976, when he was 21 years old and in his senior year, his mother died from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Soon after, Graham began law school at the University of South Carolina, but tragedy struck again 15 months later when his father died from a stroke.

Suddenly, Graham was an orphaned law student with a 14-year-old sister, Darline, and a large stack of medical bills. It would take him more than 10 years to pay them all off, though he had help from his parents’ Social Security benefits. While in law school, he would come home on the weekends and summers to help his uncle run his parents’ business, both paying his way through school and acting as a surrogate father to his sister. After graduating, Graham joined the Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps. He also adopted Darline so she could receive his military benefits while she was still a minor.

Bart Daniel, a former U.S. attorney and a lawyer in Charleston, befriended Graham in law school. He says he remembers Graham’s calm, workmanlike demeanor, in contrast with some of their freewheeling classmates.

“While all the other guys were out having a good time, Lindsey was taking care of his little sister,” Daniel says. 

Graham served six years as an active duty Air Force JAG, four of them stationed in Germany, which he calls “some of the best days of my life.” It was during his time in the service that he says he became a Reagan Republican. “You know why I became a Ronald Reagan fan? I came on active duty in 1982, and he increased pay 25 percent that year,” he says, chuckling. “I came in as a new captain with a 25 percent pay raise. I said, ‘I like this guy.’ ”

With an average net worth of less than $700,000, Graham’s not rich by the standards of the increasingly millionaire-studded Congress. His car is an unremarkable Ford Crown Victoria that looks like something a cop or a grandmother might drive. Graham lives alone in Seneca, a town near Central that borders the manmade Lake Keowee, a popular vacation and retirement spot. When I ask his longtime aide Kevin Bishop if Graham’s house is on the lake, Bishop just laughs. “No, he’s not fancy,” he says.

In 1988, Graham left active duty to join South Carolina’s Air National Guard and the Air Force reserve. (Now a colonel in the reserves, Graham still periodically serves overseas in war zones. He was in Afghanistan at the beginning of this year, for example, spending five days on reserve duty and two days as a senator, meeting with Afghan president Hamid Karzai.)

After serving a term as a state house member, Graham was elected to the U.S. House in 1994, the first Republican from his district since Reconstruction. He’d won reelection to the House three times when the centenarian Strom Thurmond announced he would not be running for a ninth term in the Senate in 2002. Graham was unopposed in the primary and went on to win what became a very competitive race for the first open Senate seat in South Carolina in 36 years. Six years later, Graham trounced his primary opponent and took home more than a million votes in the general election. That’s still the record for the most votes received by a Republican running statewide in South Carolina—including presidential candidates.

“Never underestimate the tenacity and complete alligator political hide of Lindsey Graham,” says Katon Dawson, the former chairman of the South Carolina Republican party. Republicans around the state say Graham is always ready to turn up for fundraisers or campaign events for other Republicans. It’s noteworthy that not one of the six GOP congressmen from South Carolina is challenging Graham. “His political instincts are as good as anyone’s,” says Trey Gowdy.

If there’s a political game Lindsey Graham is playing, it’s the long one. He says he’s learned in his years in Congress how hard it is to change an institution, and that change in the right direction takes a lot of time and effort. I ask him how long he’d like to stay a senator, and he pauses. He doesn’t really know, though he thinks the next decade will be critical for two of his most important issues: foreign policy and entitlement reform. The latter will require, he thinks, significant support from a prominent Democrat, just as welfare reform did in the 1990s. 

“I try to push the envelope on reform and be a solid conservative, but also create space where I can do something,” Graham says. “I guess the biggest thing I’ve learned is, when you build up political capital, use it.”

Graham still thinks immigration reform is important for the future of the country and the Republican party. He recognizes that Americans are weary of war and fears that it will take another domestic terrorist attack to remind the country that radical Islam has declared war on freedom and the West. He knows these positions and many others put him at odds with elements of his base, and, despite a weak primary field, they could cost him reelection. He shrugs it off.

“I know what to do or say to keep this job for 100 years,” Graham insists. “But I want my time to matter.”

Michael Warren is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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