Lindsey Graham learned the benefits of acting audaciously at a young age.
As a boy, no older than 6, he hung around his mom and dad’s bar in Central, S.C., dressing up as a cowboy and yukking it up with drunks for laughs.
This was four decades before anyone would call the little guy “Senator.” Back then his vaudeville routine at the Sanitary Cafe — which often included stealing slugs of beer from customers and taking drags off cigarettes poached from ashtrays — earned him a different nickname: “Stinkball.”
“I was the center of attention at that bar,” Graham boasted Thursday morning in an interview in his Capitol Hill office.
He’d just been escorted there by four police officers through press scrums and past throngs of protesters, proof that he was once again near the center of attention as the Senate considered the fate of Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Graham’s gift of gab and knack for theatrics have served him well over the years, first as a prosecutor and now as a U.S. senator.
He’s always quick with a joke, often at his own expense. But like many comic actors before him, Graham has recently taken on a more dramatic role.
The scene: a Senate hearing into allegations that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford when the two were in high school. Graham sat behind a curved dais, his finger darting through the air, his jowls trembling with rage.
“Would you say you’ve been through hell?” he asked Kavanaugh, leaving the judge — who has known Graham since they worked together to impeach President Bill Clinton — momentarily flabbergasted.
“I’ve been through . . . uhhh,” Kavanaugh said, quickly wiping a half-smile off his face. “Hell and then some.”
“This is not a job interview,” Graham shouted. “This is hell!”
“Saturday Night Live” parodied the performance as if it were an audition for a community theater production of “The Crucible.” But President Trump loved it, which many spectators figured was the point.
Graham has always had the instincts to play to an audience, whether barflies or voters. These days, his most important patron is a president who loves drama. And flattery.
Graham was once one of Trump’s sharpest critics (“I think he’s a kook,” he said in February 2016), and is now one of his staunchest supporters, whether it comes to supporting his Supreme Court pick, or his golf game (“Anyone who says he’s not a great golfer, that’s fake news,” he said).
The change in tune has puzzled those who think fondly upon the Lindsey Graham of 2016, the one who dramatically had himself videotaped while smashing his cellphone after candidate Trump gave out his number (in retaliation for Graham having called him a “jackass”). And the hard-line support for a man accused of sexual assault also may seem out of character for Graham, who once wrote of being a prosecutor: “I learned how much unexpected courage from a deep and hidden place it takes for a rape victim or sexually abused child to testify against their assailants.”
Why, then, is Graham acting this way? Where does this newfound love of the president come from, and what should we make of the red-faced rage?
What, oh what, has become of Stinkball?
"I'm always intrigued by the desire to figure out why somebody acts the way they do in public life," Graham said, leaning back in his chair behind a large desk that made him look even smaller than his 5-foot-7 frame.
Graham had just returned from reading the FBI’s written report on Kavanaugh. He’d holed himself up in a secure location with other senators and afterward said the account in the report made him as confident as ever that Kavanaugh should be confirmed.
He didn’t want to say he felt vindicated, but there was a lightness to him. After all, he had recommended Kavanaugh to Trump.
“And I’m glad he picked him,” Graham said. “I swear to God, there was a time I thought he would pick Judge Judy.”
Graham seemed relieved. Key GOP senators were calling the FBI report “thorough.” Pundits were hinting that Kavanaugh had the votes to get approved by the Senate. (By Friday afternoon, key Senators said they would vote yes.) And, there was hardly a glimmer of the angry Graham from last week’s hearing, a version of the senator that even Trump seemed surprised by.
“He called up and said, ‘Wow, you were really mad,’ ” Graham said. “And he said, “Why?’ ”
In an interview, Graham said the answer is simple: He was mad because the whole thing felt like a sham to him; because the process made the Senate look bad and a “good man” look worse; and because when Democrats nominated Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, Graham had voted to confirm them.
He knocked down the theories floated by armchair shrinks on cable news panels and professional rabble-rousers such as Bill Maher who have wondered aloud whether the recent death of John McCain, Graham’s close friend and mentor, has left the South Carolinian rudderless and without his moral compass.
It’s a compelling hypothesis: Graham calls McCain a giant of the Senate; McCain used to lovingly call Graham “Little Jerk.” They walked to voting sessions together and often cast their ballots the same way, even when it bothered others in their party.
“I said my goodbyes,” Graham said. “It was just me and John and Cindy and he said ‘Keep it going, boy,’ and I said, ‘I will.’ ”
Still, he said, “I’m not living my life going forward around John McCain.”
It’s true that McCain couldn’t stand the president personally and often clashed with him on policy. But there’s one major flaw with attributing Graham’s friendship with Trump to McCain’s death: Graham had charted his course for Trumpistan long before the giant of the Senate shuffled off this mortal coil.
“One of the first things he said to me after Trump was elected was, ‘Look, the guy is president now, we have to learn how to deal with it,’ ” said Bob Heckman, who was senior adviser for Graham’s hapless presidential run in 2016 (“I finished in the top 17 in our primary,” Graham loves to joke). “I took it to mean he was going to be very practical about this.”
Graham said the relationship shifted within a month of Trump winning; he got in touch and told Graham he might have called sooner but he didn’t have his cellphone number.
“Well, there’s a reason for that,” Graham said he told him. They laughed about it. “He’s in on the joke,” Graham recalled. “A lot of this is theater.”
McCain wasn’t thrilled with Graham’s newfound friendship with the president.
“Why do you play golf with him?” Graham said McCain would ask him. “I told him I hope you understand. . . . The best place to talk to him is in his world.”
To take Graham at his word, he has truly grown to like Trump. And even if he doesn’t agree with everything the president does or says, Graham sees him as a good vehicle for a conservative agenda.
There’s also, of course, the unsaid calculus: Graham, like Trump, is up for reelection in 2020, and his popularity is inextricably linked to the president’s. If the people of South Carolina like Trump, well, then Graham better like him, too.
“If Graham were to be primaried today, he would be in trouble, and they know it,” said a South Carolina Republican strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he stays in touch with Graham. “They know that one bad tweet from the president and it could be over.”
Graham's relationship with the Senate is one of the longest bonds he's ever had. It's become his second home, his second Sanitary Cafe.
Graham’s parents died when he was in college, leaving him to take care of their ailing finances, and his younger sister, Darline. He never married or had children of his own.
“He said it’s one of the things he missed,” said Larry Hendrix, his close friend from childhood, who still stays in regular touch with the senator. “He’s said he’s sort of envious of his other friends with a wife and family.”
“It just wasn’t as important as public service to him,” said Les Shayne, a friend since law school.
Graham didn’t strike Shayne as particularly ideological when the two attended the University of South Carolina School of Law. They rarely talked politics back then, mostly studying, playing basketball (Graham always took the shot, rarely sunk it), or laughed about what a slob Graham was (Shayne said a visitor once came to Graham’s apartment, sat on his couch, and when she stood up had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich stuck to her rear end).
After graduating, Graham joined the Air Force, where he worked as a military prosecutor before joining a law firm.
“Conducting a trial is like staging a play,” he wrote in his memoir. “You’re the writer, director and principal actor. I was born to do it.”
In 1992, he turned to politics, first getting elected to the state House of Representatives, and then joining the U.S. House in 1995. From the jump he found the action, sitting on the Judiciary Committee during the Clinton impeachment. In 2002, longtime Sen. Strom Thurmond retired, and Graham was elected to take his place.
He loves the institution. He loves the history and a hierarchical system that, when functioning well, reminds him of the military. And he loves the spotlight. Always has.
“He and I went to a basketball game years back,” said Shayne. “And he saw a cameraman filming fans a few rows down, and he bolted down the stairs just to be in the shot. He couldn’t help himself.”
In the Senate, the cameras find Graham. He’ll join any gang, as long as it’s related to the issue everyone’s talking about: immigration (Gang of 8), health care, judicial nominees (Gang of 14).
Today, everyone’s talking Trump, and Graham knows that as far as his job security is concerned, it’s better to be at the table with Trump than on the table.
He doesn’t have to look far for a cautionary tale.
In June, Rep. Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina governor who found a second political life in Congress, lost a Republican primary election. The cause of his political death, at least according to Sanford: wounds sustained battling Trump. Sanford has called Trumpism a “cancerous growth” on the GOP and Trump has called Sanford a “nasty guy.”
Looking back at it, Sanford said he thinks he could have won if he just played nice. Not that he has any regrets.
“You can play that card,” he said. “But I think there’s real rot at the soul level when you do it. It’s what people hate about politicians.”
Should people hate that about Graham? That’s not for him to say.
It just wouldn’t be appropriate, he said, to say anything that could be construed as negative, not about someone from his own state, not about someone who came into politics at the same time. The two were once so close that Sanford made Graham one of his kid’s godparents.
“Co-godparent,” Sanford corrected.
They’re not that close anymore.
"It helps to have grown up in a liquor store and bar," Graham said, wrapping up the interview. Living as he did allowed him to deal with all sorts of people, from drunks to teetotalers.
He’s proud to be the kid whose parents never graduated from high school who’s helping get the prep-school jock on the Supreme Court. Just as he’s proud to be the retired Air Force colonel helping advise the real estate tycoon on matters of national security.
Shortly after Trump was elected, he invited Graham to the White House for a chat. They ate lunch with Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, beside a flat-screen television tuned to Fox News.
Graham said the president had wanted to get his thoughts on national security, the subject that Graham considers his specialty. So, he told the president his two biggest concerns were Iran and North Korea, at which point, the television started showing archived footage of North Korean missile launches. The president, Graham said, worried that this was happening in real time.
“That’s old footage, old footage!” Graham said he told him, laughing now at the memory.
Poor John McCain, people say, Graham must be making his dear friend roll over in his grave. Senator McCain was celebrated for being unwilling to tap dance for Trump. What does that say about Senator Stinkball?
“I really don’t care,” said Graham. Better to have someone whom the president trusts enough to listen when he talks sense. Someone to make sure he nominates Judge Kavanaugh instead of Judge Judy. Someone to make sure he knows when a rocket launch on TV is happening now or in the past. That is what matters, said Graham. Not what people say about him.
It’s an audacious performance. If not entirely believable.