Road Trip

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SEPTEMBER 10, 2008

Road Trip

Traveling with any presidential campaign is exhausting. But it may be most exhausting to hit the road as a buddy of John McCain, because, along with forgoing sleep, you become a chief victim of McCain's unrelenting and often peculiar avidities. Giant pigs, for one.

On a recent Wednesday, waiting to board a flight to Savannah for a McCain event headlined by his surrogate Senator Lindsey Graham, I came across Graham himself, sitting entourageless near the gate, his legs curled up on his seat, a lick of gray-brown hair disordered by the previous night's hotel pillow sticking up from the back of his head, glumly rifling through copies of Newsweek and People and looking so weary I didn't recognize him at first. It turned out Graham's bedraggled condition was, in part, the result of having endured three flights in 24 hours to accompany McCain to a nuclear-plant photo-op in Detroit and a tele-town hall in West Virginia. On top of that, there was the emotional wear incurred from McCain's pestering him over a pig.

"John is so excited about the big pig," Graham explains, slumping in his airport chair and rolling his eyes. "He wanted me to see the pig." The pig in question is Freight Train, the Iowa State Fair's 1,259-pound prize-winning hog, whose immense hillocks of back fat constitute a boyish fixation for the Republican nominee. Graham couldn't make it to Iowa this year, but McCain was loath to stop playing with him: "'Just come out!'" Graham croaks, squaring his shoulders and turning his voice into a rasp to imitate McCain's. "He is mesmerized by that pig."

Before Freight Train captured McCain's enthusiasm, it was bird-watching. "They ought to take all the detainees at Gitmo, round them up, and make them listen to John talk about birds for a week," Graham complains of their epic sessions with bird guidebooks at McCain's ranch in Sedona, Arizona. "John gets so obsessed with things, and if you're his buddy, you pay."

Not every U.S. senator who advises the GOP's presidential nominee on Iraq policy gets to see the side of McCain that likes to run after animals. But the 53-year-old Graham has a special place in McCain's campaign: top surrogate, but also inseparable foil. Graham has not only gone on--in the past month alone--CNN, "Face the Nation," "Hannity & Colmes," "Today," and "Fox News Sunday" to press the McCain campaign's tactical interests, but he also talks with McCain on the phone about three times a day, oftentimes just to say hi. En route to Savannah (a rare trip away from McCain's side), Graham managed to squeeze in a short call between wheels-down and deplaning. Walking down the jetway after the flight, he waved to me, smiled, and held up his cell phone: "That was John, right there!"

It's unusual for a presidential candidate to have an honest-to-goodness sidekick, but then again, McCain is sort of a Pied Piper for protégés. While most politicians collect allies, McCain collects followers: There's ex-aide John Weaver, who still helps McCain long after being officially dumped; speechwriter Mark Salter, who reveres McCain as a father figure; and fellow POW Orson Swindle, who adoringly follows McCain around on the campaign trail. These intensely devoted mentees seem to look to McCain less to bring momentum to their careers than to bring meaning to their lives. But Graham is different from all the other worshippers--and more important.

 

Journalists often present Graham as subordinate to McCain--Tom Ricks, of The Washington Post, called him McCain's "mini-me"--but it was actually McCain who made the first move in their relationship. "I like to think it was my charm," Graham says, "but I think it was my demographic." The year was 1998, McCain wanted to run for president, and Graham happened to be a feisty, up-and-coming young congressman from the crucial state of South Carolina. They became acquainted during Bill Clinton's impeachment trial, where Graham was pumping up his reputation as a right-wing attack dog. Shortly after, McCain invited Graham to his office and asked him to join his nascent campaign. Graham co-chaired McCain's 2000 effort in the Palmetto State, and, two years later, their friendship really clicked during a trip they took together to the Munich Conference on Security Policy. McCain was "very good at making sure foreign leaders knew who I was," Graham remembers.

When Graham moved up to the Senate in 2003, he quickly shrugged off his former party-line conservatism to create, with McCain, a maverick duo that reveled in pulling off joint feats of political derring-do. "I'd say [to McCain], 'Why am I doing this?'" relates Graham. "He says"--he squares his shoulders again and breaks into the McCain rasp--"'Ehhh ... It'll be fun!'" Graham and McCain bashed the military's treatment of Iraqi detainees, anchored the bipartisan "Gang of 14" that broke the judicial nominations fight, and, in the summer of 2005, flew to Alaska with Hillary Clinton to decry man-made global warming. After President Bush phoned Graham and asked him to help push McCain's moderate positions during last year's immigration-bill negotiations on the Hill (the Arizonan winas too busy campaigning to be of much use), Graham himself became so passionate about a compromise that he lambasted its conservative opponents as "bigots." The ensuing fallout only brought him and McCain closer. "I feel like I've been through war with McCain," Graham explains. "That bonds you."

The two have, in fact, gotten so close that Graham has essentially been inducted into McCain's family. He is an ever-present guest at the Sedona ranch (where he sometimes takes McCain's youngest daughter Bridget's mermaid-themed bedroom) and a companion on trips and holidays. During a trip to London with the McCains in March, he and McCain's son Jimmy took Bridget to a Jack-the-Ripper-themed attraction, where Graham coined his own nickname for her: "Bridget the Brave." This past Memorial Day, McCain, his wife Cindy, Bridget, and Graham all watched the latest Indiana Jones in the theater. The Fourth of July found McCain, his son Jack, and Graham shooting at tennis balls together in the Arizona desert.

It's easy to think of Graham--a bachelor orphaned in college--as yet another surrogate son to McCain, who, with seven children, 22 pets, and a gaggle of aide-acolytes vying for his love, obviously has something of a compulsion for parenting. But, unlike Jack or Jimmy or John Weaver, Graham also has a highly scripted part to play in McCain's public shtick, less filial than farcical. In a typical McCain stump speech, the candidate begins by graciously thanking his local hosts, then pauses, grins, looks around, and quips, "I know that little jerk Lindsey Graham is around here somewhere."

McCain publicly pokes fun at Graham for being a lawyer, for falling over when they visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem, for dining at the Olive Garden. Graham's proletarian eating habits are a particular source of amusement. "The only reason why Senator Graham is with us is because he gets free meals from time to time," McCain recently told a group of slightly startled reporters in the middle of a somber press conference on the Russia-Georgia war. (Graham got his comeuppance this week when he dragged his friend to an Orlando, Florida, Olive Garden for spaghetti and meatballs on the campaign's tab.)

"McCain always brings in a jester type," says a regular on the Straight Talk Express. "He needs to have that person. For the [2000] campaign it was [ex-strategist] Mike Murphy. For this one, he brought in Lindsey Graham." Like Dean Martin's Jerry Lewis, though, Graham is not a mere foil or fall guy but McCain's ride-along id, the unleashed little jerk McCain might like to be if he weren't now being told by his concerned campaign staff to rein in his jokes and avoid journalists. McCain's signature style of loose, self-deprecating humor? Graham vents it. ("I grew up five miles from a nuclear plant," he tells the crowd at his rally in Savannah. "Look how I turned out." Beat. "I used to be taller.") Like McCain once did, he craves parrying with the press. He even says "my friend" on television.

The jester, though, might be in trouble. The New York Times reports that Steve Schmidt, the flinty, no-nonsense Karl Rove protege who's taken over McCain's campaign with orders to bring discipline to the circus, is limiting McCain's access to his circle of buddies and even restricting his use of his beloved gold Razr cell phone "in an effort to keep him more focused." "I have to wonder how it will be now," says one former McCain staffer. "Schmidt is all business. Graham is how McCain is--he wings it, shoots from the hip."

But for the moment, the gold phone is still accepting Graham's calls, and Graham is still playing an unreconstructed, freewheeling McCainiac. In spite of his exhaustion, after the Savannah town hall Graham invites me--an unknown reporter--to a multi-course Italian dinner capped off by a Baileys on ice. During the flight to Savannah, Graham had lent me his copy of People, and in it I had read an article about the hottest new film genre: the "bromantic comedy," exemplified by the recent two-dudes-on-a-spree hit Superbad. I couldn't help thinking of Graham's hijinks with McCain, and his wish, as he later put it, to be McCain's "effective servant" and "eternal optimist." "How does it feel to be part of the nation's most prominent bromance?" I ask the senator, after explaining the People story. Graham grins. "Let me say," he replies, "I admire John in a lot of ways, but not in that way."

Eve Fairbanks is an associate editor of The New Republic.

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