Lindsey Graham’s boyhood friends remember the once-scrawny kid who warmed the bench at high school football games and lived with his family at the back of their liquor store, beer joint and pool hall.
They also talk of the Washington fixture who helped their relatives get federal benefits and calls childhood friends before heading off onto the world stage.
“He’ll call me sometimes on the way to the airport and say, ‘I’m getting ready to go to Iraq or Afghanistan,’ or something like that,” said Larry Hendrix, who has been friends with Graham since they went to the first grade in the tiny Upstate town of Central. “To me it means a lot to know that, even though he’s advanced that far, I know a man that’s getting ready to run for president, and he hasn’t forgotten who I am.”
Graham will return Monday to Central’s Main Street, where he grew up, to make official his longshot bid for the Republican nomination for the White House among his closest friends and supporters.
The setting – a former textile mill town, located at the central point between Atlanta and Charlotte on the rail line – will highlight Graham’s working-class upbringing.
It was a hardscrabble childhood.
Growing up, Graham and his parents slept in the same single room in the back of the family’s business. Graham was the first in his family to go to college. His parents died 15 months apart, leaving Graham, then at the University of South Carolina, a father figure to his younger sister Darline.
Graham moved Darline in with their aunt and uncle in Seneca, a town about 12 miles west of Central, on the other side of Clemson. He came home on the weekends to see Darline and to try to save the family business, which eventually went under.
After his parents died, Social Security survivor benefits kept Graham and his sister afloat, the senator says on the campaign trail, pitching his commitment to saving safety-net programs that help people get back on their feet after falling on hard times.
Now that he is a third-term U.S. senator, Graham’s hometown contrasts with his more recent habitats: the halls of Congress, diplomatic trips to war zones and appearances on Sunday news shows, where the attorney regularly zings Democratic President Barack Obama’s foreign policy.
Graham said recently he is running because “the world is falling apart.” As long as terrorism is on top of voters’ minds, he thinks he will have a path forward politically as a defense hawk who would take the fight to terrorists, rather than wait for them to reach U.S. soil.
While Graham’s supporters say his 22 years in office and more than 30 years in the U.S. Air Force, S.C. Air National Guard and U.S. Air Force Reserve combined qualify him for the job, childhood friends say the senator’s roots shaped him.
“He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth at all,” Dick Singleton, Graham’s high school football coach, said recentlyfrom his home in nearby Six Mile.
“(H)e’s proven himself. He came up the hard way,” Singleton said. “A lot of people coming from that environment might not have done as well as Lindsey has done. He raised his sister. He’s held in high esteem.”
‘Not the first-string holder’
Jimmy Head remembers Graham as the younger kid, toting a bag of marbles, whose babysitter would drop him off at his house to play.
“The bad thing is, at the end of the day, we’d send him home without his marbles,” Head joked. “If I’d knew where he was going to be today, I’d have treated him a little better, let him won a little more.”
Graham’s friends jokingly say they hope his presidential campaigning turns out better than his performance on the high school football field.
During one of his “three plays” on D.W. Daniel High School’s football team, Graham was holding the ball for the kicker but forget to pull the ball back to signal that a defender was rushing the kicker, Hendrix said recently.
The defender and kicker collided, Hendrix said. “He was not the first-string holder.”
But, as a U.S. senator, Graham has excelled, his friends and hometown allies say.
“He’s one of those types that will try to get something done rather than try to make a statement,” Hendrix said of his friend, adding Graham would make “tough decisions” while also working alongside Democrats.
Ensure ‘our enemies fear us’
Graham’s hawkish approach to defense was ammunition for his GOP Senate primary opponents last year. They predicted that, under a Graham presidency, the United States would end up in another protracted war.
“I’ve seen thousands of corpses in Rwanda, seen results of the ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia,” said retired military veteran Thomas von Kaenel of Six Mile, a friend of Graham’s since high school.
Von Kaenel said he and Graham share the view that “there is evil in the world.”
“We either confront evil or we let it confront us,” he added. As president, Graham would use the military “only as a last resort.” But he also would ensure “our friends trust us and our enemies fear us.”
“The question is: What do you do when you have 30,000 people that are overtaking an area the size of Indiana in the span of about 18 months?” von Kaenel asked, referring to the Islamic State’s march across parts of Syria and Iraq. “How do you stop them? Is it better to stop them over there, or is it better to stop them at our water’s edge?
“Once you say, ‘They are here at the water’s edge or at the shore, then we can do something,’ I think, frankly, it’s a mistake.”
‘I learned in the pool room’
On the campaign trail, Graham has said his political education started when he was young, spending time around his parents’ customers.
“Everything I know about politics, I learned in the pool room,” Graham told a group of New Hampshire business leaders earlier this year. “That is why I know the Iranians are lying.
“People like the Iranians came to the pool room, and you could not trust them.”
Back home, however, Graham is known for his softer side, slipping into the sanctuary at Corinth Baptist Church in Seneca some Sunday mornings, right after the service starts, and slipping out before the final prayer.
That approach is to keep a low profile, said fellow church members Shelby and Robert Lee of Seneca, where Graham lives when he is not shuttling from the Capitol around the country or overseas on Senate business.
The Lees rattle off stories about Graham’s office helping Seneca residents get federal benefit payments.
Stanley LeRoy, another Corinth church member, said Graham helped his father, a World War II veteran, get the ribbons and medals that he was supposed to receive.
“Lindsey’s office stepped right up,” LeRoy said.
‘He’s just Lindsey’
Graham’s prospects of reaching the White House are slim, if his low polling numbers hold true.
But his friends and supporters back home in Central and Seneca – combined population: 13,400 – are hopeful.
“I don’t think he’s got a chance, but I didn’t think he had a chance the first time” he ran — for state representative in 1992, said Robert Lee, who said he would vote for Graham.
Lee also said he “didn’t used to think a single man could win” but is willing to shrug that off, too, noting how busy Graham is.
If elected, Graham would become the second bachelor commander-in-chief, following only James Buchanan.
Graham’s bachelorhood should “have no bearing” on his ability to be president, said Shelby Lee, Robert’s wife. But, she added, “It is a little bit of a problem because ... men use their wives as sounding boards. But I think he would do well without a wife.”
Coach Singleton said a lot of locals are excited about Graham running.
“He’s very popular,” Singleton said. “And he’s just Lindsey. He’s not Senator Graham. He’s just Lindsey.
“That’s the way he likes it.”
Reach Self at (803) 771-8658
Lindsey Graham 2016
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, will announce Monday that he is running for president
When: 10:30 a.m., Monday
Where: 217 W. Main St., Central
Graham’s ties to the Upstate
1955: Born in Seneca and raised in Central
1973: Graduated from D.W. Daniel High School in Central, went on to graduate from the University of South Carolina and its law school
1988-92: Oconee County assistant county attorney
1990-94: Central city attorney
1992: Elected to the S.C. House of Representatives, District 2
1994: Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, 3rd District
2002: Elected to the U.S. Senate, succeeding Strom Thurmond
About the candidate
Education: University of South Carolina, 1976; USC law school, 1981
Military career: U.S. Air Force in 1982, serving at Rhein Main Air Force Base in Germany, 1984-88; S.C. Air National Guard, 1989-95; soon to retire as a colonel in the Air Force Reserves
U.S. Senate: On the Armed Services, Budget, Appropriations, and Judiciary committees
Hometown: Lives in Seneca, attends Corinth Baptist Church
Family: Single; parents, deceased; sister, Darline, lives in Lexington with her husband and two children