Given it was a dive, the name still makes him chuckle: the Sanitary Café. Lindsey Graham’s parents ran the country bar, one where children’s portraits stared back at a row of men on vinyl-covered bar stools swigging Budweiser and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
The Sanitary Café sat in Central, a tiny town outside of Clemson. It was a textile mill bar, which is to say the stories came salty and the men salt of the earth.
Upstairs, the Grahams served up hotdogs and hamburgers when customers from the mills lumbered in hungry after long days of hard work. Downstairs was a poolroom. Across a partition sat a liquor store they later bought. The future U.S. senator turned long-shot Republican presidential candidate grew up, literally, in back of the bar.
“It was a very basic kind of hole in the wall,” says Darline Graham Nordone, his younger sister. “But there was always something going on.”
Home was one big room, its linoleum floor peeling. The bar’s kitchen was their kitchen. Its bathroom was their bathroom. The family bathed in a metal washtub with water heated on the stove. But the place overflowed with love. And humor. And life lessons, too.
“It was a great room,” recalls Graham, who’s 60 now.
The family had no air conditioning, but they did have a TV and a phone that locals called to see if their husbands had lingered too long at the bar.
When Graham was maybe 9 years old, a woman called. Was Fred there?
Fred was a regular, so the boy ran up and hollered to him, “Hey, Fred. Your wife’s on the phone!”
“Tell her I’m not here.”
So you know where this goes. The boy gets back on the horn.
“Fred said he isn’t here.”
Graham chuckles again remembering the wife’s reaction.
“Bottom line is: I learned diplomacy in that bar.”
Those lessons would propel him from the Upstate’s country roads to the starched halls of Washington, D.C., from Middle Eastern war zones to a struggling presidential bid.
But it wasn’t all drinking beer and shooting pool in those early years. At the Sanitary Café, Graham also learned life’s deeper lessons, the ones about love and death and loss.
It’s 7:45 a.m. Name tags are stuck onto lapels, stiff coffee gulped, hands shaken and breakfast sitting on round tables with white tablecloths. People stand graciously when Graham enters the room, his gray suit blending with the 70 or so others on hand.
“Sen. Graham.” Name given. Hand shaken. Smile.
“Sen. Graham.” Name. Handshake. Smile.
It’s early November, the morning after Graham learned he was jilted by Fox Business Network in its upcoming Republican presidential debate, the one to be held a day before Veterans Day. The long-serving veteran isn’t polling high enough. He grins through the frustration.
The day’s first stop is at the weekly Rotary Club of Charleston breakfast, but this could be any in an endless slog of daily campaign events. He steps up to deliver a speech he’s given a million times now.
“Anyone know where Central’s at?” Graham asks. A few nods. “Well my dad ran a liquor store, so we knew y’all!”
“That’s why I know the Iranian government is lying,” he adds. “If you run a poolroom, you meet a lot of liars.”
With the predictable nods, Graham reaches for his talking points. They’re hardwired into his brain now, memorized during the endless speeches and interviews that running for president requires.
He watched his parents work their tails off. First in his family to go to college. Retired after 33 years in the Air Force. Willing to work with Democrats. Been to Iraq and Afghanistan 35 times.
Then there is, always, terrorism.
“So ISIL. I don’t know how to destroy them from the air. But I think somebody needs to destroy them. Does that make sense to you?”
His microphone crackles in and out.
“How many believe they’re coming here if we don’t go over there?” he asks to nods of agreement. “Me too!”
“The next 911 is most likely coming from Syria,” he warns.
It’s the hawkish tone he’s known for, one that’s made him a darling of Sunday news shows. Only Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders has appeared more often this year, according to Roll Call, a website that tracks appearances.
Here, over breakfast in Charleston, his pro-military message resonates.
But to win, Graham must reach across the nation. With that he’s struggling.
He spends the Fox Business News debate night on social media sites Twitter and Sidewire responding to questions that the other candidates are asked on the actual stage.
‘RICH AS I COULD BE’
Central sits just five miles from Clemson and all that bleeds orange. Graham grew up there with about 2,000 other folks back when the textile mills ran strong.
A precocious kid, he’d sneak swigs of the customers’ beer when they got up to hit the Sanitary Café’s restroom, and they’d take him hunting and fishing like their own sons. They dubbed him Stinkball for his antics. “It was a good life,” Graham recalls. “I could go grab a Coke any time I wanted to. In my world, I was as rich as I could be.”
Men arrived doused in lint from the mills, some missing fingers, at times drinking more than they should. They became his first audience. He’d dress up like a cowboy to entertain and learned the invaluable value of likability.
“Key to being a good bar owner is you’ve got to be friendly enough to people so they want to come back,” Graham says. “But you’ve got to be tough enough to make sure people don’t take over your business.”
Kind of like politics.
His dad, Florence James Graham — “Dude” to folks who knew him — was a funny guy too. He and his wife Millie ran the bar six days a week (closed Sundays, of course). When Graham was 9 years old, they had their second child. His sister Darline’s birth “brought color to our lives,” he recalls.
“I was privileged. I knew it then, and I know it even better now,” Graham writes in his autobiographical e-book, “My Story.”
Darline also remembers the fun of those days. The Sanitary Café had a pinball machine, a jukebox and a bar with their mom’s rocking chair at the end. Millie Graham was a down-to-earth woman, quieter than her husband, an equal partner in running the bar and staunchly committed to raising up her kids right. It’s what turned her into a fighter when death knocked at the Sanitary Café’s door.
DARKEST OF DAYS
Not long after Graham enrolled at the University of South Carolina, the family went to Disney World for their first vacation. It was great. What came after nearly destroyed them all.
When they got home, Millie dragged. Exhausted, she felt nauseous. An itchy rash formed. She went to this doctor and that one.
When Graham came home from USC a few months later, his mom had a doctor’s appointment. He still recalls his father racing home from it, lurching his car toward the bar’s curb and stumbling out.
“Your mom’s not going to make it,” he blurted. Hodgkin lymphoma. Stage 4.
A doctor estimated Millie had six months to live.
“She fought like a tiger,” Graham says. “She fought so hard.”
The next spring, Dude was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Graham and Darline shuffled between hospitals now home to their seriously ill parents.
The college boy stepped into his father’s role.
Millie died holding her son’s hand. She was 52.
Her funeral was held the sweltering June day before Darline’s 12th birthday. Graham graduated from college in December, early but not early enough for his mom to be there.
He became a commissioned Air Force officer that day, too. Darline and Dude pinned on his second lieutenant’s bars.
TROUBLES NOT OVER
Graham got ready to start graduate school and helped out financially by going door to door around Columbia selling pots and pans, then tending the family’s liquor store on weekends. He also tried to support Darline at home.
The next blow came his first semester. Two family members arrived at school, summoning Graham from class.
“Is he dead?” he asked.
That morning, Darline had tried to rouse Dude before leaving for school. A massive heart attack left his body lifeless. Within 15 months, they had lost both parents.
“Most of us are one car wreck away from needing someone’s help,” Graham says. “You can be flying high one day and down in the dumps the next.”
As they buried Dude, Graham promised Darline he’d never leave her.
NOT WHAT IS LOST
Graham planned to quit school, stay home and run the liquor store. Darline said no.
An aunt and uncle stepped up and took in the 13-year-old.
Graham got into law school and began classes while still driving home every chance he got. His roommate, Warren Mowry Jr., now a deputy solicitor in the 8th Circuit, remembers often hearing: “I got to go help in the store,” when he and their friends were heading to Carolina games.
But after the bar exam, Graham was set to begin four years of active duty. He fretted over where he’d be sent, how Darline was faring, how they’d pay their parents’ medical bills.
He decided to seek a hardship discharge. Instead, he got assigned to the legal office at Shaw Air Force Base three hours from home. And there, he made his name exposing the military’s flawed drug testing program, revelations that landed him on “60 Minutes,” a first foray into the news talk shows that would later define him to many voters.
When his time at Shaw ended, his legal star rising, he was offered a key post: Would he become one of four Air Force prosecutors in Europe?
Darline was in college when he called: “There’s something I want to talk to you about.”
He offered to find her a college in Europe near him. But Darline was a young woman with her own life. She stayed home. Before Graham left, however, he adopted her so she could receive better benefits if he died.
Then the doors to Europe opened wide to him.
WHOLE NEW WORLD
In 1984, Graham arrived in Germany during the Cold War’s tumultuous final years, traveling 250 days a year to every nook of Europe trying cases involving rape, child abuse, drugs and murder.
Please help support the fight to keep America safe with your generous donation.
“Anything that can happen in a small town happens on Air Force bases,” he says.
He prosecuted an airman who broke his son’s leg, an experience that taught Graham how best to cross-examine a liar. He prosecuted GIs who gang raped a young girl.
He handled an espionage case in the infamous Nazi leader Hermann Goering’s private dining room and often went through Checkpoint Charlie, the border crossing between East and West Berlin. He’d step into a gray world where cameras peered from walls while Russian, North Korean and North Vietnamese generals dined in fancy restaurants.
Former President Ronald Reagan became his political idol. When enemies attacked American interests, “Reagan pushed back,” Graham says. It cemented his foreign policy view that America must remain a premier military force in the world.
Those four years in Europe also brought him the closest he’d come to marrying, although both women had callings elsewhere. One was an Air Force JAG officer who headed back to the U.S., and another needed to care for her elderly mother in Vienna.
And by then Graham was ready to go home.
He missed Darline. He also had new ideas about his future, and those roads led back to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
He joined a reserve unit and, in 1989, joined a small-town law practice with an old friend in Walhalla in Oconee County. He often worked in Family Court, gaining the priceless reward of perspective.
“I realized that the biggest gift of all was just unconditional love, something a lot of people don’t have,” he says. “It’s not the size of the house that matters. It’s what goes on inside of it. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate it’s not what I lost but what I had.”
He’d once told a teacher he wanted to be governor. Mostly he said it to make his friends laugh. But in 1992, he ran for the S.C. House against a Democratic incumbent.
“The Republican Party was looking for a candidate,” he recalls, “and I was looking to get started.”
He had no clue what he was doing. But he had family, and as he concedes in his book: “Self-doubt isn’t usually one of my flaws.” They handed out graham crackers, rented a baby elephant and went door to door. He liked to drag Darline with him.
“We’re going campaigning!” he told her.
“What am I supposed to do?” she asked.
“Just go knock on doors and give them a brochure and tell them to vote for your brother,” he said.
So she did. So they all did.
“It worked,” he says. He won every precinct except his own.
Two years later, the late Butler Derrick retired from the area’s congressional seat. Back then, David Wilkins was House speaker pro tem, grinding toward the first Republican majority since Reconstruction. New Republican members like Graham were key.
But in spring 1994, Graham approached Wilkins on the floor. He was thinking of running for Derrick’s seat.
“Don’t run,” Wilkins recalls saying. “It’s a Democratic seat, Lindsey. You can’t win. Don’t end your career early.”
Wilkins, who went on to serve as U.S. ambassador to Canada, shakes his head all these years later.
“Thank goodness he didn’t take my advice,” he says.
Graham jumped into his first crowded race and won.
Then Sen. Strom Thurmond retired.
“I said, ‘Hey, the seat comes open every 50 years. Count me in!’” he recalls.
A LOYAL FRIEND
Graham served as a House prosecutor in the failed attempt to impeach former President Bill Clinton. Every morning, he headed to the Senate to make his arguments.
Sen. John McCain was a juror.
“I was really impressed with him,” McCain recalls.
The feeling was mutual.
“I just admire him. He’s an American hero. He sacrificed for his country in ways you’ll never know,” Graham says of McCain, a former prisoner of war. “And he’s a loyal friend. Not much of that in politics.”
They served on the Senate Armed Services Committee together and shared a passion for national security issues as well as a willingness to work with Democrats, particularly on immigration reform.
They also often traveled together to Iraq and Afghanistan.
One trip came in 2007. When they landed in Baghdad, Army Gen. David Petraeus asked them to speak to a large group of green card holders about to become naturalized citizens and about 600 servicemen awaiting a re-enlistment ceremony — in the middle of a war zone.
Graham and McCain walked into Saddam Hussein’s former palace, packed with more than 1,000 people. Amid the uniforms, body armor and stifling heat, they spotted two empty chairs in front of the group awaiting citizenship. A pair of boots sat in each.
“Those two individuals were killed in the last 24 hours,” McCain recalls the general saying.
U.S. law allows green card holders who enlist to become citizens more quickly. The two dead men would receive their citizenship posthumously.
Graham stepped onto the stage. Gone was his prepared speech. Instead, he spoke about people who want to become American citizens badly enough they’ll risk their lives.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” McCain recalls.
That was back when McCain was running for president the second time, when his poll numbers were low, his campaign in disarray and pundits busily writing him off. Yet, he came back to win New Hampshire and South Carolina, propelling him to clinch the nomination.
The lesson wasn’t — and still isn’t — lost on his old friend.
BID FOR PRESIDENT
When Graham announced his own presidential bid June 1, he returned to Central.
The day before, Darline went back to the old poolroom. A good 30 years had passed since she’d stepped foot inside. Now a 51-year-old mother herself, she cried for all that she and her brother had lost.
The next day, they stopped by their parents’ graves on the way into town. Then they drove down Main Street to a stage where Graham would announce his bid.
Darline looked out at the crowd. “I think about where we came from and I’m like, ‘Wow. I cannot believe that,’” Darline says looking back on that day.
Graham, a third-term senator, stepped to a wooden podium.
“Some of you have known me since my family lived in the back of the bar in that building. But I’m pretty sure no one here, including me, ever expected to hear me say: I’m Lindsey Graham, and I’m running for president of the United States of America.”
‘LET LINDSEY BE LINDSEY’
Nearly six months later, his poll numbers linger at the bottom of a crowded field, although last week’s terror attacks in Paris thrust his foreign policy experience back into the news cycle.
His biggest test comes in February with New Hampshire’s voters in the nation’s first primary. After campaigning with him for three days there, holding 12 town hall meetings, McCain insisted he felt optimistic. It’s not all about big spending there. It’s about face time. It’s about house parties and town halls much like meeting folks for breakfast at the Rotary Club.
“Let Lindsey be Lindsey,” McCain says. “They can ask him anything, and he can give an impressive answer.”
So why isn’t Graham, a man who has never lost an election, resonating enough to stand on the 8 p.m. debate stage? Or any stage at this point?
“I don’t know the answer to that,” he admits.
Graham has an idea. At this early stretch of a long race, it’s all about name recognition. And that’s hard to come by from a small state unless “you’ve got your own TV show or your father’s been president,” he quips. The race will look a whole lot different come primary time, he insists, so he still crams his days with campaign events and interviews, promoting his aggressive stance against ISIS and filling slips of spare time spreading his message in 140 characters on Twitter.
But too often, those efforts are met like one last week when Fox Business News tweeted his comment: “I’m going to do with ISIL what we did to Al Qaeda after 9/11: Declare war on them.” The response?
One man called Graham a “mental midget.”
“He may be all in … but the polls tell a different story. He’s going nowhere,” tweeted another.
“Go home, you’re drunk.”
“The man has less than 1%.”
And so on.
Graham and his supporters insist he’s in the race to win it and that his ideas ultimately will win over voters.
But his challenge now isn’t just low polling numbers. He trails the leading candidates by tens of millions of dollars in donations. His top contributors are retirees, Wall Street and the legal sector, according to opensecrets.org, which tracks fundraising.
Last summer, Graham’s campaign staff said they hoped to raise at least $15 million to $20 million to carry him through the early voting states, leading into a home-state advantage in South Carolina. That hasn’t happened.
As of this fall, he had raised about $7.8 million.
In June, Graham’s re-introduction of a bill to ban online gambling prompted much media speculation that he was trying to access the deep pockets of casino mogul and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, an Internet gambling foe who used millions to boost Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential bid.
So far that hasn’t happened for Graham either.
For now, he says that if he doesn’t fare well in New Hampshire, he’ll re-evaluate and perhaps back another candidate. Who might that be?
“Jeb Bush is a great guy, but he’s falling. Can he come back? Rubio’s rising,” Graham debates in his mind out loud, adding: “They’re all my friends.”
In the meantime, he will keep relying on retail politics, the kind he learned at the Sanitary Café.
“Can you go from the back of the liquor store to the White House?” he asks. “I don’t know.”
Support Security is Strength PAC with your generous donation.