Lindsey Graham, a Twang of Moderation
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 1998; Page D01
"Everybody is sick to death of this!" Lindsey Graham says in his country-lawyer twang. "Count me in that category."
He's a partisan Republican from South Carolina. When he landed in Congress with the revolutionary shock troops of 1994, ending four decades of Democratic rule, he was intent on cleansing the body politic of all traces of big-government liberalism. But at least in one respect, Graham's views on the impeachment ordeal are surprisingly compatible with President Clinton's.
He's a very junior member of the House Judiciary Committee -- 20th among 21 Republicans -- but the 43-year-old Graham has positioned himself, for now, as the panel's preeminent voice of reason. It's the singular, humorous and highly quotable voice of a former Air Force prosecutor who grew up helping out in his father's saloon. In a world where media exposure often equals power, Graham is claiming star status and a share of influence with his uncanny gift for the camera-ready aphorism.
"Is this Watergate or Peyton Place?" Graham declared at Monday's historic hearing -- cutting to the heart of the matter (and through the clutter of 36 other opening statements) as the Judiciary Committee launched its impeachment inquiry. Yesterday's New York Times, for one, enshrined Graham's incisive question in a four-column headline. In its loopy way, the quip recalls former Tennessee senator Howard Baker's much graver challenge during Watergate: "What did the president know and when did he know it?"
Graham's droll touch suggests that unlike many in the GOP, he believes that the current White House scandal is not necessarily a constitutional crisis. In a process sharply polarized by cultural values and ideology, he has served as an occasional bridge between warring factions, sometimes even voting with the Democrats, as he did last week on whether to release further embarrassing details of Clinton's escapades with Monica Lewinsky. Temporarily joining the losing side, Graham voted no. He is also the sole committee Republican to have publicly countenanced the possibility of censure -- a solution the White House dearly desires as a way of preempting an impeachment trial.
"The other scenario is that this guy just has a problem and he can't control himself and it's about human failings and censure is appropriate. We don't need to turn the country upside down," Graham ad-libbed on Monday (while every other committee member clung for dear life to a text). "Nobody can tell me yet whether this is part of a criminal enterprise or a bunch of lies which build upon themselves based on not wanting to embarrass your family. If that's what it is, about an extramarital affair with an intern, and that's it, I will not vote to impeach this president no matter if 82 percent of the people back home want me to, because we will destroy this country."
Graham recently joined Massachusetts Rep. William Delahunt, one of 16 Judiciary Democrats, in a letter urging that independent counsel Kenneth Starr complete his work quickly and give it to the committee ASAP. Reps. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) also signed the letter. It was, in this splenetic environment, a rare display of bipartisanship.
"Lindsey is a fair-minded person and he's a principled member of the committee," Delahunt says, echoing the comments of other Democrats. "In terms of where we are on the political spectrum, there's a great disparity between us. But I have great respect for him. He's very forthcoming and he tells it like it is."
Graham -- whose middle-aged spread and laid-back manner cushion knifelike intelligence and a sizzling ambition -- has been something of a firebrand during his career on Capitol Hill. He took part in last year's abortive coup against House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), staged by Young Turks exasperated with Gingrich's tendency to unilaterally compromise with the White House. More recently, he stood on the House floor and scolded a deeply annoyed Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the pork-rich Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, about the evils of budget-busting.
Graham explains his knack for phrasemaking a few hours after he has shown it off to the world.
"The best thing you can do is to get it where it is like a conversation at the coffee table," he says, lounging in the majority staff suite as the hearing drones on. "I always try to convey to whoever wants to listen to me what I really truly feel. . . . Get a mental picture in your mind that you're talking to a real person."
Graham is a seasoned advocate. After obtaining his law degree from the University of South Carolina in 1981, he joined the Air Force's Judge Advocate General staff, spending four years as a prosecutor and defense attorney in Europe.
"One, he was very intelligent, and two, he understands people," says Air Force Maj. Gen. Bryan Hawley, who was chief trial judge for Europe when he saw Capt. Graham work in courts-martial. "He has more common sense than I do."
In 1984, defending an Air Force pilot accused of marijuana use, Graham attracted national attention when he was featured in a CBS "60 Minutes" report that exposed the Air Force's faulty drug-testing procedures.
Graham recalls his Air Force tour as terrific fun for a young bachelor swinging his way through Paris and Rome. "Don't believe anything anybody tells you about my Air Force exploits," jokes Graham, still unhitched and a roommate of Rep. Van Hilleary (R-Tenn.), another single guy. "I was very heterosexual, that's all you need to know."
He returned home to the more sedate life of a small-town trial lawyer in Seneca amid the cotton mills of western South Carolina.
"I always tell lawyers, 'If you can't talk to the jury in conversational style, then you're not trying,' " Graham says. "Because when you talk to your wife about buying a car, you'll have a serious conversation about it. When you talk to your kid about doing their homework, you'll have a serious, genuine conversation, because that means something to you. Well, your case ought to mean something to you, and you ought to be able to convey to people why it means something to you. And if you can't ever get in touch with that, drop the case."
Friends and relatives credit Graham's plain speaking and wry humor to his father, F.J. Graham -- the proprietor of the oddly named Sanitary Cafe, a combination restaurant-bar-liquor store-pool hall in Central, S.C. (pop. 2,000). Lindsey's mother, Millie, was a savvy businesswoman who cooked hamburgers and served Cokes behind the counter while F.J. -- for Florence James -- generally presided over things. The elder Graham, a barrel-chested man with a crew cut and a dry wit, was known around town as "the Dude."
"My dad was a hoot," Graham says. "Being 5 foot 7 inches and full of a mouth, you got to really stay on your toes. . . . This is a textile town. My dad never finished high school and neither did my mom. And we had a restaurant/bar and later on he got a liquor store next door and a pool hall downstairs and as a young guy I ran the pool hall. I've heard every story and then some. But at 3 o'clock in the afternoon the first shift would get off from the mill and people would come in just full of cotton and dust and they'd drink beer till midnight. And I've heard 'Satin Sheets to Lie On and Satin Pillows to Cry On' a thousand times."
Graham says he doesn't drink, probably because alcohol consumption has never held any exotic allure for him. "I've seen the bad side of drinking. I've seen a lot of drunks throwing up," he says. "A small-town community bar is what it was. I know what it's like to be thought of as the kid of the guy that owned the bar -- and everybody's so sanctimonious -- so I took all that stuff in stride. So it was a great place to learn about life. I had wives call up wanting to know if their husband's there and I'm answering the phone at 9 years of age. And I'd say, 'Well, he said he isn't here.' So I learned the hard way about a little bit of diplomacy. But it was a great upbringing."
Graham's sunny existence came to an abrupt end when his mother died, at age 52, of Hodgkin's disease, soon to be followed by his father's fatal heart attack at age 69. He was a senior at the University of South Carolina, where he became the first member of his family to graduate from college, and was left to worry about his 13-year-old sister, Darlene. Their parents gone, they were taken in by a childless uncle and aunt in nearby Seneca.
"You assume everything's going to be like Ozzie and Harriet," Graham says. "That doesn't mean it's going to happen that way. So here I've got a teenager on my hands. She's turned out great in spite of me. I was probably a nut. I never let her date. I smelled her clothes if she smoked. I listened in on her phone calls. I was probably pressing too hard, just 'cause I felt such responsibility for her. I paid for her college and I did all the financial deals when I got in the Air Force. I thought that was my job and I felt very happy to have done it. She is the light of my life."
"He's sort of been like a brother-father-mother all wrapped into one," says Darlene Boggs-Graham, today the 34-year-old married mother of a 4-year-old girl. "Even though we lived with my aunt and uncle, Lindsey was basically my guardian. He was always there for me. It's a big joke with all my friends that I was the rebellious teenager and he was always very strict with me. If he came home and said, 'I smell smoke on you -- have you been smoking?' I always said, 'No, of course not.' "
Big brother wasn't fooled. And today, Graham says he's not particularly swayed by the president's verbal contortions in the effort to explain his misleading testimony about the affair with Lewinsky.
"What I want to make sure I do," he says, "is pull back and understand: What is this all about? Not just the minutiae of who touched who, where and all that kind of stuff. If it truly is just about the president telling one lie that compounded itself to another lie that was even harder to believe, going from one stupid story to a goofy story to an unbelievable story where he tried to get his friends to follow him -- well, I'm not willing to overturn the election for that."
On the other hand, Clinton shouldn't take too much comfort in Graham's apparent open-mindedness. Graham, after all, was one of only 19 sponsors of last year's then-controversial impeachment inquiry resolution. He says he's especially troubled by evidence -- such as the grand jury testimony of perennial Clinton adviser Dick Morris -- suggesting that Clinton operatives have regularly intimidated "Jane Does" to keep mum about their affairs with the president. Morris called these people -- who the White House contends simply don't exist -- Clinton's "secret police."
"There is a potential flavor to this case that's becoming more real to me, where these operatives reappear over and over again," Graham says. "Dick Morris is not a guy I'd want to hang around with. The question is, did the president really trust him? And does he have the ability to know what he is talking about? And is he being halfway honest? Now he has brought out a side of this case that is worth looking at."
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