The political history of South Carolina is full of funny stories. Yet amid a landscape scarred by utter military catastrophe, deep racial injustice, and still bitter historical tragedy, these stories seem sometimes not so funny. Or maybe they’re funnier. During the presidency of Franklin Pierce, Congressman Preston Brooks cudgeled Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner nearly to death with his cane. Hundreds of Carolinians sent Brooks new canes to replace the one he had broken on Sumner’s pate. More recently, our idiot Governor Sanford released two piglets into the State House – nicknamed “Pork” and “Barrel” by our jocular governor – in order to send some vague, raffish message about the need for budgetary discipline. Well, at least Gallagher would be proud. The state Agricultural Commissioner – a position seemingly insulated from scandal – has just been prosecuted for his involvement in, of all things, cockfighting. Our current lieutenant governor, a spectacular fuck-up named Andre Bauer, is like Billy Carter and Roger Clinton rolled into one. Listing his exploits would be too tedious, but the most recent coup de theatre had him speeding at over 100 mph and using his police radio to call off pursuit, breezily telling officers that he was, “SC 2.”
It was apparently in this spirit of frat-house collegiality that, a few years ago, the head of the state Democratic Party, Dick Harpootlian (who recently engineered South Carolina’s leapfrogging ahead in the ’08 Presidential primary) publicly averred that the future Senator Lindsey Graham was “light in the loafers.” This beautiful country-club euphemism meant – as we all learned during the subsequent George-Allen-style is-it-a-slur-or-not scandal – “homosexual.” There’s a perpetual rumor in South Carolina to this effect, and Graham’s girly first name, soft looks, and immaculate bachelorhood certainly aren’t doing him any favors. When Lindsey Graham was just a Congressman and a prominent figure in the Clinton impeachment fracas, Harpootlian – ever a wit in this regard – quipped that perhaps it was not so much Clinton’s having sex with a woman in the Oval Office that excited his ire, so much as it was Clinton’s having sex with a woman in the Oval Office. And what most consider the highlight of the Alito hearings – Graham’s random and hilarious question to the judicial nominee, “Are you really a closet bigot? – is curious in its diction: why did Graham say “closet bigot” and not just “secret bigot”? Why, indeed…
Senator Graham’s “across-the-aisle” lifestyle notwithstanding, his across-the-aisle politics frequently put him at loggerheads with the GOP establishment. He is a marquee member on the short list of “maverick” Republicans whom liberals love to temporarily praise and ultra-conservatives love to slander in critical primaries. Mavericks are viewed variously as principled whistleblowers and showboating traitors. The maverick contingent includes Chuck Hagel and Arlen Specter, and their leader is unquestionably maverick’s-maverick John McCain, whom Graham enthusiastically supported during the 2000 primary in South Carolina – unfortunately the dark land of his undoing thanks to some nefarious push-polling. On a number of key issues, Graham has dissented from the party line promulgated top-down from the Bush administration, often in conjunction with John McCain and other maverick figures. He was part of the “Gang of 14,” the bipartisan convergence responsible for averting the nuclear option. He was also an outspoken critic of the administration’s position and a vital liberal ally during the Abu Ghraib scandal, the wire-tapping scandal, and the successfully torpedoed attempt by the GOP to set up a system of private accounts for Social Security. Most recently, Graham has come to the fore in the last-ditch defense of the Geneva Convention mounted by a few Senate Republicans.
The issue hinges around the interpretation of Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, which forbids among other things, “Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment.” The Bush administration and its legislative allies would like to see this section and others formally “clarified” – which is a code-word for “weakened” – so that what they call vital techniques of interrogation may be retained; they want the unmolested freedom to molest. But the three crucial players holding it up are Senators John McCain, John Warner, and Lindsey Graham. If their refusal to budge seems unusually spirited, it’s perhaps because McCain was a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam, and Graham was a Judge Advocate General (JAG) in the Air Force. Both have direct experience with the relevant importance of the Geneva Convention; Graham with its lawful application and McCain with its horrible absence, and both are committed to its survival as a determining force in American wartime conduct. The Senate Armed Services Committee just passed a bill that leaves Article 3 untouched, contrary to Bush’s wishes. It remains to be seen in the coming weeks whether Messrs. Graham, McCain, and Warner will bow to the incredible pressure being applied to them now, whether the Senate Armed Services Committee will be itself procedurally circumvented, or whether some more or less legitimate compromise will prevail.
It is not the case that Graham’s persistent intransigence is merely tactical, as some might suggest from examining other tight races around the country, a ploy to distance himself from the ostensibly sinking political fortunes of the Bush administration. This is impossible for the simple reason that Bush is still really, really popular in South Carolina, and it’s in every politician’s interest here to play the lamprey to Bush’s big fish. Without exception, every maverick sally of Graham’s has accrued to his disfavor among the SC GOP base, sparked a storm of shrill letter-to-the-editors, and endeared him only to liberals such as myself….you know, the people whose votes don’t matter in a state as crimson as this one. This suggests that Graham’s actions are not politically motivated.
If you’re a liberal in South Carolina, you learn to take what you can get. Lindsey Graham is pretty much George Mc-fucking-Govern compared to the previous holder of his seat, the very embodiment of racial anachronism and old colubrine Dixiecrat monster, Strom Thurmond. And Graham’s fellow Senator from South Carolina, Republican Jim DeMint, is a feckless patsy whose only redeeming virtue is his principled support for free-trade, notable in this once textile-dominated state. Perhaps the most revealing anecdote of all about Graham is this one. Once upon leaving Daschle’s office, the Senator is reputed to have crowed, “Republican by day. Democrat by night.”
In other words, Graham is keeping it “on the down low.”