If anyone else called him “little jerk,” Sen. Lindsey Graham might be offended.
But the jab comes from Sen. John McCain, so he wears it like a badge of honor.
“If John’s not belittling you, you’re in trouble,” Graham said. “He calls me lots of other names, too, but they’re not appropriate for the newspaper.”
McCain and Graham aren’t just friends. They’re inseparable, so much so that colleagues, staffers and journalists have begun making cracks about the relationship between the freshman senator from South Carolina and the man who would be president.
Some call Graham a lapdog. Others say he acts as though he’s one of McCain’s legislative aides. One Senate aide, who called Graham and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) “Pips” to McCain’s Gladys Knight, said that Graham “fawns over McCain like there’s no tomorrow.” In the run-up to this week’s hearings for Army Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, The Washington Post’s Tom Ricks said Graham “sometimes seems like McCain’s ‘Mini-Me.’”
“I think it’s almost a father-son relationship,” said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), a friend of both senators and another member of their Senate clique. “I think Lindsey looks to [McCain] and relies on him. But I think John draws on Lindsey’s energy and relies on him for a laugh.”
McCain spokeswoman Melissa Shuffield said the two senators “have the kind of friendship that will outlast their political careers.”
The two have grown so close that a Fox News anchor felt compelled to ask Graham last week if he might be McCain’s running mate — a suggestion Graham laughed off by saying that McCain “doesn’t have anything I want or need.”
That’s not exactly true. As Graham himself admits, his close relationship with McCain affords him opportunities and access that most neophyte senators don’t usually enjoy — as long as he’s willing to put up with the abuse that goes along with it all.
Tuesday morning was typical. As a curtain raiser for Petraeus’ appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain, Graham and Lieberman appeared together outside the Capitol at an event organized by Veterans for Freedom.
The TV cameras turned out to catch the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, but Graham got some of the attention and a bit of the ribbing. “Lindsey Graham was a colonel — that’s the good news,” McCain told the crowd. “He’s also a lawyer — that’s the bad news.”)
Tuesday was McCain’s first day back at the Capitol in a few weeks. The last time he was there — for votes on the massive budget bill — he and Graham could be seen walking side by side in the Russell building and riding together on the Senate subway. During the late-night vote-o-rama, the two men cracked jokes in the back of the chamber like two grade school pranksters.
“Lindsey! Lindsey! Get over here!” McCain said, his raspy voice wafting up to the gallery, when Graham strayed momentarily and walked in the other direction.
A few days later, when McCain flew home to Arizona for a weekend of relaxation and barbecue, he took Graham with him. Then, together with Lieberman, they traveled on an eight-day journey to Iraq, Jordan, Israel, England and France later in the month.
On the trip, like at so many other times, Graham had what he called “a name-ID problem” as he traveled with two more widely known senators. “Everyone was saying, ‘Hey, John! Hey, Joe! And then there was me,” Graham said. “But John was very good about making sure everyone knew my name.”
At the Western Wall, Graham said he was literally run down by 100 photographers trying to get to McCain. Graham ened up on the ground. “I almost dislocated my knee, and John is screaming, ‘Get up! Get up!’” Graham recalled, laughing. “Apparently, my fate in life is to be instructed.”
It isn’t easy being the nobody-senator next to the somebody-senator-turned-presidential-hopeful. But Graham says he relishes playing the role of McCain’s confidant.
“If I make his day better by being someone he can talk to, confide in, have a good laugh with, I am honored to play that role,” he said. “I enjoy his company.”
But it’s not all give and no take, Graham said.
“I’ve gotten to do things because of John that I’d never be able to do” without his friendship, he said.
McCain was there for Graham when he made the jump from the House of Representatives to the Senate in 2002. They supported one another through some of the biggest legislative battles of the past six years. And when others wavered, Graham stuck it out for McCain during those dark days in the summer of 2007 when it looked like his presidential ambitions were dead.
It’s quite the bond, considering McCain was already studying at the Naval Academy before Graham was born in 1955.
In a sense, the two men owe their friendship to former President Bill Clinton. Graham was a member of the House, serving on the Judiciary Committee, when the panel initiated impeachment proceedings against Clinton. Graham had the task of shipping the impeachment case to the Senate side of Capitol Hill, and that’s when he and McCain met.
“It’s kind of an odd way to meet people, but that’s how we met,” he said.
The two found a mutual interest in military issues. McCain, a Navy man, was a POW in Vietnam; Graham served in the Air Force and went on to serve as a judge advocate during the Gulf War.
With military issues as their common language, they kept up the communication from opposite ends of Capitol Hill. In 2000, when McCain decided to run for president, he asked Graham for his support.
“He called me out of the blue and said, ‘I’m thinking about running for president. Will you support me?’ Graham recalled. “I said, ‘Sure, yeah, I’ll support you, because you’re the first person who ever asked. What the hell? Why not?’”
In 2002, Graham won a Senate seat and instantly turned to McCain as a mentor.
Over the past six years, when one senator was working on a big issue, the other was often close by his side. It happened on immigration, when McCain introduced a comprehensive reform measure that critics called nothing but amnesty.
Graham was there.
“I got pulled into this,” Graham said. The issue was so controversial that some of his constituents began calling him “Lindsey Gomez,” he said.
“I really owe him a lot for that,” Graham said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
It happened again on judicial nominations, when McCain brought together the bipartisan “Gang of 14” senators in an effort to end an impasse over judicial nominations.
Graham was there.
And once again, he had to take the heat. Religious conservatives were incensed because they wanted Republicans to stand tough. Some evangelical leaders even singled out Graham for his role in the gang.
Graham was there yet again when McCain pressured the White House over detainee interrogations and the definition of torture.
They’ve been through some big fights but perhaps none tougher than the one Graham calls “our campaign,” the current battle for the White House. Last July, as McCain’s campaign looked like it was falling apart, the two buddies found themselves at a humbling campaign stop.
There were just 12 guys there, and half of them were aging World War II veterans. As McCain spoke, “these guys were saying, ‘What did he say?’” Graham recaled, laughing.
The headlines were saying that McCain’s campaign was dead. But McCain turned to Graham, smiled and said, “Hey, pal, we’ve got ’em right where we want ’em.”
Since then, Graham has been impressed with his friend’s ability to turn it all around.
“When the chips are down, John has a way of slowing down, reflecting, listening to what people tell him,” Graham said. “Under pressure, he’s at his best.”
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