Politics & Policy

Lindsey Graham, Comedian in Chief

(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty)

The world, Lindsey Graham will assure you, isn’t that different from the old pool hall his father ran.

“Everything I know about politics, I learned in the pool room,” Graham told a New Hampshire audience in March. “It was really good training. That is why I know the Iranians are lying. People like the Iranians came to the pool room and you could not trust them.”

Strategic ambiguity? Alliance-building and breaking? Graham traces his approach to these big political tasks back to his childhood in the small textile town of Central, South Carolina, near Clemson University.

“I can remember Fred,” Graham said on the stump. “His wife called one night when I was about eight years old, and I answered the phone and his wife asked, ‘Is Fred there?’ So I ran up and said, ‘Fred, your wife wants to know if you are here.’ He said, ‘Tell her I am not here.’ So I went back and said, ‘He said he was not here.’ So I learned diplomacy at an early age.”

Graham will never be president. His name recognition is nil, he’s unlikely to raise anywhere near enough money, many conservatives see him as a RINO, and it’s unclear if the GOP as a whole is comfortable with his full-throated hawkishness and singular focus on radical Islam and the war on terror. And that’s a shame, since it means we’ll never get to experience the deliberately hilarious spectacle of a Graham presidency: The senator offers some of the most shameless and daring did-he-just-say-that one-liners and jabs in modern politics.

One part court jester, one part cynical Republican id, Lindsey Graham says what he’s thinking, consequences be damned.

Graham’s had to apologize for about half of his more controversial comments, but there’s something appealing about his unvarnished bluntness, both off-the-cuff and scripted. One part court jester, one part cynical Republican id, Lindsey Graham says what he’s thinking, consequences be damned.

Would any other Republican presidential candidate — save perhaps Donald Trump — regard a disapproving Nancy Pelosi and declare, “Did you see Nancy Pelosi on the floor? Complete disgust. If you can get through all the surgeries, there’s disgust.”?

Has any other candidate summarized Americans’ exhaustion with the Middle East better than Graham, when he quipped, “Al-Qaeda, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula . . . Everything that starts with ‘al’ in the Middle East is bad news”? (“Al” means “the” in Arabic.)

Sure, some would call that comment — and his declaration that “the last place in the world you want nuclear weapons is in the Middle East. Why? People over there are crazy.” — insensitive, but it’s probably an accurate reflection of the way a significant number of Americans feel.

After an Obama presidency of constant false assurance that everything is okay, Graham will tell it like it is — or maybe even worse than it is. After last year’s State of the Union Address, Graham concluded, “The world is literally about to blow up and our president did not really paint a fair picture of the threats we face.”

Things have barely improved in the past year; in April he told an audience, “The world is deteriorating at a faster rate than I’ve seen in a long time.”

You never have to guess where Graham stands. In January 2013, discussing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s testimony at the Benghazi congressional hearing, he summarized, “Hillary Clinton got away with murder in my view . . . She said two things that will come back to haunt her: They had a clear-eyed assessment of the threats in Libya, and they had close contact with the Libyan government. I don’t believe either one of them.”

Most lawmakers simply say they’re really committed to a particular goal; Graham publicly jokes that he wishes he had the power to invade Congress, so he could resolve budget disputes: “I wouldn’t let Congress leave town until we fix this. I would literally use the military to keep them in if I had to. We’re not leaving town until we restore these defense cuts. We are not leaving town until we restore the intel cuts.” (Note the recurring Biden-esque use of the word ‘literally.’)

Maybe Graham’s shoot-from-the-hip style would be an effective deterrent if he were president. After all, who would want to join an extremist group when the commander-in-chief already announced, “If I’m president of the United States and you’re thinking about joining al-Qaeda or ISIL — anybody thinking about that? I’m not gonna call a judge. I’m gonna call a drone and we’re gonna kill you.”

A president that blasé about drone-killing American citizens without a trial isn’t going to indulge any pangs of doubt when values like free speech and national security conflict, or try to split the difference with generic, meaningless language. No, you know which side Graham comes down on, and he’s not shy about it:

Most lawmakers simply say they’re really committed to a particular goal; Graham publicly jokes that he wishes he had the power to invade Congress, so he could resolve budget disputes.

“Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war,” he declared after a Florida preacher burned a Koran in 2011. “During World War Two, you had limits on what you could say if it would inspire the enemy. Burning the Koran is a terrible thing, but it doesn’t justify killing someone. Burning a Bible would be a terrible thing, but it wouldn’t justify murder. Having said that, any time we in America can push back against actions like this that put our troops at risk, we ought to do it.”

Some politicians attempt to address the difficult issue of entitlement reform with complicated financial figures. Not Graham. At an April campaign stop in Nashua, he asked the audience, “Anybody here born from 1942 to 1964? You know what you’re called? ‘Baby Boomer.’ I will be 60 in July. You are called seniors. Anybody born after 1964? We want our money!”

Not even his home state is above a little teasing every now and then.

“We don’t do Lincoln Day Dinners in South Carolina,” Graham told a Lincoln Day gathering in Tennessee in 2005. “It’s nothing personal, but it takes awhile to get over things.”

He teases the other states, too, of course. Discussing a chat in front of a fireplace, he quipped, “I literally almost caught on fire. I thought the witch trials were over, but I guess the trial by fire is what New Hampshire is all about.”

“Foreign aid is easily demagogued,” he told an audience in Manchester in April. “It’s one percent of the budget, and we’re broke here at home. I’m sure there are roads that need to be built here in New Hampshire. As a matter of fact, after last night, I can assure you there are roads that need to be built here in New Hampshire.”

Most consultants would scream at a candidate to avoid anything that could sound like insulting the audience’s home state, or at the very least to treat the event with the decorum and respect it deserves. If Graham has received such advice, he continues to ignore it; he’s the candidate who’s every bit as bored by the canned one-liners at candidate forums as you are.

“How many of you listened to every speaker?” he asked the Nashua audience. “You deserve a Purple Heart. We should make everybody from Gitmo come up here and keep listening and listening. . . . If you’re looking for something new, don’t look to [Hillary Clinton]. Look to the 35 people running for president on the Republican side.”

Grim situation? Lindsey’s got a joke. In May 2013, Graham wished his good friend, John McCain, safe travels as he met with anti-Assad rebels in Syria: “Best wishes to @SenJohnMcCain in Syria today. If he doesn’t make it back [I’m] calling dibs on his office.”

Sometimes you’re not entirely sure he’s joking — as when he floated the idea of a rotating cast of first ladies: “’Well, I’ve got a sister, she could play that role if necessary. I’ve got a lot of friends. We’ll have a rotating first lady.” (Graham isn’t married, which recently spurred Illinois senator Mark Kirk to call him “a bro with no ho.” And you thought senators were stuffy and humorless!)

Behind closed doors, Graham lets loose even more unpredictably. In a 2014 speech to the Hibernian Society of Charleston, a charitable group with an all-male membership, he said, “I’m trying to help you with your tax status. I’m sorry the government’s so f—ed up. If I get to be president, white men in male-only clubs are going to do great in my presidency.”

He then offered a theological assessment, “We got any Presbyterians here? We got any Baptists? They’re the ones that drink and don’t admit it.”

Maybe Lindsey Graham isn’t the right man to replace Barack Obama. Any chance he could be the man to replace Jon Stewart?

— Jim Geraghty is senior political correspondent for National Review.

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