In a great old episode of The West Wing, the president's chief of staff, Leo McGarry, is schmoozing up a politician the White House wants to win over. After their chat, McGarry puts the ultimate power move on the pol: he casually ushers the dazzled man into the Oval Office, where the president is waiting to greet him like a dear friend.
The allure of the Oval Office drop-in isn't lost on Rahm Emanuel, the real-life White House chief of staff. Not long after Barack Obama took office, Emanuel staged a McGarry maneuver of his own. Hoping to make good on his campaign promise of a kinder Washington, Obama was looking for influential Republicans he could team up with. There weren't many obvious choices in the House. But there was one in the Senate: Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Emanuel invited Graham to the White House for a one-on-one about national-security issues (the senator is a former military prosecutor who sits on the Armed Services and Homeland Security committees). After their chat, Rahm ushered Graham into the Oval Office, where Obama was waiting to greet him like a dear friend.
Obama and Graham made small talk and joked about the president's still-bare desk. Graham, a bachelor who lives on Coke Zero and Burger King, recalls telling Obama, "I can help you with detainee policy and world stuff, but don't call me for decorating advice."
Since then, Emanuel and Obama have invited Graham back several times. To the dismay (and sometimes outright anger) of his fellow Republicans, Graham has advised the president on how to handle touchy political issues, including closing Guantánamo Bay and bringing terror suspects to justice. Joe Biden invited him over for steaks at the vice president's residence, where he asked Graham for help winning Republican support for the surge in Afghanistan. "We're really going to need you, because we're going to lose a lot of [Democratic votes]," Biden told him, according to Graham's recollection of the meeting. Emanuel calls Graham "a worthy opponent and a valuable ally."
The senator enjoys the attention, but he is not naive—he was one of the Republican revolutionaries who stole Congress from the Democrats in 1994, and he helped manage the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton. And he is not dazzled by Obama's charm. Neither does he have much interest in being the president's best friend. During the 2008 campaign Graham was John McCain's traveling companion, confidant, and occasional alter ego. He has excoriated Obama as an extreme liberal and accused him of "folding like a cheap suit" on immigration policy back in their Senate days together. Graham is pro–tax cut, pro-gun, pro-drilling, and anti-abortion. He opposes Obama's health-care plan (and hasn't offered to help on the issue). He was against the stimulus package and the jobs bill.
But he is also impatient with his own party leaders' determination to thwart Obama at every turn instead of working with him to see that Republicans get some of what they want. A seasoned haggler who takes pride in the give-and-take of dealmaking, Graham sees no sense in the all-or-nothing ethos that now defines politics in Washington. "I'm trying to keep the tradition alive that you can fight for your causes and effectively engage with your colleagues," Graham says. "I didn't come here to talk about what I won't do."
Graham was the only Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote in favor of confirming Sonia Sotomayor, Obama's first Supreme Court nominee. He had grilled the judge about her temperament and disagreed sharply with many of her rulings, but in the end he said he couldn't deny that she was qualified for the job. Most Republicans claim global warming is not an urgent threat. Hedging, Graham says he's not sure, but thinks either way it's common sense that pollution is a problem. He's spent months working with Democrat John Kerry to find a way to reduce carbon emissions that both parties can live with. On immigration, Graham talks tough about securing the border to keep illegals out, but supports limited amnesty for those already here. It would be impossible, he says, to round up and deport 12 million people.
The question of how to bring accused terrorists to justice is an important issue to Graham. Unlike many Republicans, he supports shipping the Guantánamo detainees to the president's proposed prison in Illinois. And he can live with civilian trials for lower-level detainees. But Graham insists on keeping open the option of military trials for the most dangerous, high-stakes suspects like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Early in Obama's presidency Graham warned against trying to bring the trials to New York. "It will blow up in your face," Graham told the president. He said Republicans would mutiny, "and you'll lose me." Emanuel told Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. to call Graham. The two men had four marathon discussions. "We talked until we were blue in the face," Graham recalls. But Holder was unmoved and announced civilian New York trials for the detainees. Graham's predictions of a massive political backlash—by Republicans and Democrats—came true. The administration backpedaled. The White House now looks like it is moving toward the compromise Graham first suggested.
His willingness to talk to and occasionally vote with the other side has endeared Graham to Democrats, who see him as taking up McCain's old mantle as a Republican who puts principle above party. But it has also made Graham a target of Republican hostility. He has a businesslike but not close relationship with Mitch McConnell, the Senate's GOP leader. (Graham is careful to keep McConnell apprised of his meetings with Obama.) His fellow South Carolina senator, Jim DeMint, a combative conservative who is up for reelection this year, has chided Graham for his forays into enemy territory. "I've got some really good personal relationships that will survive my votes," Graham says. "Other colleagues, it depends on how the wind blows. If you're hot, they like you. If the base is mad at you, they don't."
The base is mad at Graham, all right. In January, a South Carolina county's GOP voted to censure him - the second one to do so in a year. "Sen. Lindsey Graham has repeatedly demonstrated contempt and belligerence towards those members of the Republican Party who support freedom, a constitutional government and the Republican Party platform," the censure read. It was a symbolic rebuke, but its harshness reflects a growing sentiment among many hard-core Republicans that Graham has personally betrayed them.
Tea-party activists in the state are even angrier. At town-hall meetings they boo Graham for his stands on the issues. But what really seems to drive them crazy is the idea that he could actually be personal friends with Democrats. This they see as nothing less than traitorous. McCain is his closest friend in the Senate. But Graham was an admirer of the late senator Ted Kennedy—though the two men disagreed about almost everything political—and counts John Kerry and Joe Lieberman as two of his closest colleagues.
Graham struggles to maintain his country-lawyer equanimity when Republicans declare him guilty by association. "I'm not going to let anybody choose my friends," he says. "If you don't like Ted Kennedy, fine. I'm not asking you to like him. But you're sure as hell not going to tell me I can't like him. I don't want to live my life that way." When he sat down with a group of 30 tea partiers at his office in the Russell Building this winter, the conversation was anything but friendly. The activists castigated him for buying into global warming; Graham shot back that there would be plenty of jobs in green technology. "Nobody in the room was buying it," says Randy Simpson, a tea-party organizer. Graham tried to find middle ground. "I'm going to please you on some things, and on some things I'm going to disappoint you," he told the gathering.
"At times, elements of the base have a mentality that 'I can't win if the other guy gets anything,'?" Graham laments. "It's not enough that you agree with them on the issue. You have to hate the other side." Graham can dine with Democrats and un-apologetically con--front the much-feared-at-the-moment tea partiers in part because he has the luxury of time. As the questions at the meeting in his office grew more hostile, Graham had finally had enough. If they didn't like the way he was doing his job, he told his guests with an aw-shucks smile, they could vote him out of office. In 2014.