The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Lindsey Graham’s spokesman explains his latest ‘joke’ about the Middle East

An April 2015 file photo of Graham in Nashua, N.H. (Jim Cole/AP)

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham likes telling jokes. We know this.

On Monday night, at an AIPAC dinner in Boston, the possible 2016 presidential contender reportedly said: "Al Qaeda, Al Nusra, Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula… Everything that starts with ‘Al’ in the Middle East is bad news."

The quip was first reported by former Haaretz investigative journalist Uri Blau.

Of course, "al" tends to precede proper nouns in Arabic, almost like the English equivalent of "the." So Graham's quip spawned an afternoon's worth of headlines such as "Lindsey Graham sounds the alarm about the word 'the'" along with a stream of tweets mocking his lack of linguistic acumen.

Graham spokesman Kevin Bishop wasn't present at the dinner, but said the al-being-bad-news line is a joke that's part of Graham's regular stump speech -- and one that he's told for many years.

"It's not a serious policy statement," Bishop told The Washington Post, adding that it's a "humorous way" to look at pressing issues. And the South Carolina senator often gets laughs when he tells it, too.

But what of the fact that "al" is sort of like "the" in Arabic? "He's not making a statement on Arabic; he's not making a statement on language," Bishop said.

Not all of Graham's zingers land him in hot water -- like, for instance, the time he joked about his buddy, Republican Sen. John McCain, dying in Syria. (McCain has jokingly referred to Graham as his "illegitimate son," so.)

But sometimes Graham's jokes do get him in trouble, like the time he was recorded saying, "White men who are in male-only clubs are going to do great in my presidency." After audio of that 2014 remark went public, his campaign spokesman said the comments were part of "jokes" at a private, roast-like function that were "taken out of context."

Graham, who has pitched himself as a foreign policy expert and as a hawkish alternative to libertarian Sen. Rand Paul, has said he expects to make a decision about whether to run for president by May.


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