Lindsey Graham may be more valuable as McCain's running buddy than as his running mate.
Sometimes Graham makes his points with charm, other times with venom. On Fox News Sunday recently, expertly playing to the audience's emotions—which, as we should know by now, is how elections are won—he viscerally appealed to Hillary voters by suggesting that Obama thinks of them as a bunch of racists: "We're not going to run a campaign like he did in the primary, [that] every time somebody brings up a challenge to who you are and what you believe, 'You're a racist.' That's not going to happen in this campaign."
Of course, Obama himself has never said such a thing—and had he muttered it under his breath in the third grade, we surely would have heard about it by now. Graham, on the other hand, has made blanket accusations of racism; last year, he thundered to a Hispanic audience, "We're gonna tell the bigots to shut up"—a remark that caused quite a ruckus among the conservative opponents of immigration-reform legislation he was referring to.
Though many Senate colleagues see the McCain-Graham relationship as a father-son connection, no 52-year-old son would so willingly play sidekick. Graham was literally knocked to the ground by a bunch of photographers trying to get to McCain on their visit to Israel in April. "I almost dislocated my knee, and John is screaming, 'Get up! Get up!' " he told Politico. "Apparently, my fate in life is to be instructed." Yet he doesn't seem to mind, and is more deferential than any official running mate I can remember: "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. I enjoy his company."
And vice versa, obviously. But what else does Graham get for his loyalty and service? Publicity, for one thing: He's in every shot—like this one and this one (and this, too; that's him, holding the Dalai Lama's other hand). Graham is also up for re-election this year and has not been subtle about bragging that his closeness with McCain will benefit South Carolina if his friend wins the election. "If he gets to be president, South Carolina's interests will have a receptive audience due to our relationship," Graham told the AP.
When it comes to the McCain veepstakes, then, wouldn't Graham seem to be an obvious front-runner? With his military background, foreign-policy cred, regional appeal, and efficacy as a surrogate, you'd think so. But as the New York Times so delicately phrased it: "Mr. Graham is a single man—is that still a challenge to be on a national ticket?"
A: Yes, it is, even if that wasn't really Graham in his underwear in GQ two years ago; the image was Photoshopped, and in the accompanying article, Graham shrugged and said, essentially, Nah, I'm not gay, just a lonely dude workaholic with no personal life, other than couch surfing chez McCain or with a female aide and her husband, whom he's known since high school. His lack of a wife briefly seemed to be at issue during his 2002 Senate race, when the state Democratic chairman, Dick Harpootlian, called him "a little too light in the loafers to fill Strom Thurmond's shoes." (Later, Harpootlian pleaded light in the head, saying he didn't know that was an anti-gay slur.)
Graham says he has no interest in the vice-presidential nomination, anyway—or in being attorney general—or anything at all other than to stay exactly where he is and help McCain from the Senate. But if McCain is elected, he'll wield enormous power there as First Friend.
Melinda Henneberger is a Slate contributor and the author of If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians To Hear.
Photograph of Lindsey Graham by Alex Wong/Getty Images.