The battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court was an especially ugly episode of a reality-show presidency that degrades almost everyone swept up in it, and many characters stagger away from it looking worse than ever.
That’s Senator Lindsey Graham you see at the head of the pack. That’s Graham you hear talking and talking and talking some more, in committee rooms and on stages and before the television cameras that he rushes to the way a toddler chases soap bubbles. His words are whichever ones guarantee a major role and a powerful patron, which means that these days he sounds like a more articulate echo of his golfing buddy: Donald Trump.
That wouldn’t, by itself, be cause to dwell on him. Washington is lousy with lackeys, and not even the maddest of kings thins their ranks.
But Graham is special. He really is. I can’t think of another Republican whose journey from anti-Trump outrage to pro-Trump obsequiousness was quite so illogical or half as sad, and his conduct during the war over Kavanaugh completed it. For the president he fought overtime, he fought nasty and he fought without nuance.
In so doing, he distilled our rotten politics — its transacti onal nature, its tribal fury, its hysterical pitch — as neatly as anybody in the current Congress does.
Has a diva at La Scala ever delivered an aria as overwrought as the one that Graham performed on the day when both Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee? “You know how you make America great again?” Graham said then. “Tell Donald Trump to go to hell.”
“If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed,” he tweeted, apparently referring to the Republican Party’s prospects in 2016. “And we will deserve it.” He called Trump the “world’s biggest jackass.” He said that choosing between Trump and Senator Ted Cruz, who survived much deeper into the party’s 2016 presidential primary than Graham did, was like deciding whether to be shot or poisoned. Trump returned these kindnesses by publicly divulging Graham’s mobile phone number and forcing him to get a new one.
There were sound policy reasons for Graham’s revulsion. At the risk of alienating some of the conservatives in South Carolina who routinely voted for him, he had pressed for sensible immigration reform, the kind that didn’t involve ethnic slurs, the forced separation of children from their parents and border walls. He was one of the Senate’s most ardent hawks, and Trump was dissing foreign military interventions, damning NATO, pimping for Putin and peddling isolationism.
There were also personal reasons for Graham’s revulsion. Graham’s closest ally and constant companion in the Senate, a man he claimed to revere beyond measure, was John McCain. And Trump, at the beginning of his campaign, bizarrely and grotesquely mocked McCain’s long, brutal years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese. Trump’s belittling of McCain never ceased, and Graham took proper offense — for a while. Then Trump became president, started inviting Graham to play golf and Graham parted ways with his nerve and his spine. What beautiful fairways you have, Mr. President. What a virile tee shot.
That’s the sad part I mentioned. And this is the absolutely pathetic twist: McCain, battling brain cancer, stopped spending much time in Washington, and as his health deteriorated, Graham’s ardor and cheerleading for Trump intensified. McCain, you see, wasn’t just Graham’s friend. He was his road to greater relevance. And Trump presented a veritable expressway. So Graham switched vehicles and directions, and pressed the pedal to the metal.
He went from defending Jeff Sessions to pushing him toward the exit, from sounding the alarm about Russia to hyperventilating about the Justice Department and the F.B.I., from calling Trump a “kook” to savaging the media for portraying him as one, from wanting to put Trump on a bed of nails to fluffing his pillows and smoothing his duvet. At times he gushes so much that he makes Rudy Giuliani look withholding.
Shocker of shockers: He now has a nearly open line to the presidentand the president in turn calls him. White House reporters routinely mention this and him. He has all the TV time that he could ever want. On Thursday he got a prime spot at The Atlantic Festival in Washington, where he was interviewed by the magazine’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg. On Friday he got a big profile in the Style section of The Washington Post.
He claims that he’s serving a higher purpose by softening Trump’s stances where they sorely need softening, but that certainly hasn’t happened with immigration. He notes that he does chastise Trump occasionally.
But his smearing of Christine Blasey Ford and the Democrats who championed her was so vehement that he earned public raves from Giuliani, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Eric Trump and Sean Hannity.
They and the president are his constituency now, and his agenda? According to a few people who know him well, he’s auditioning for attorney general.
Him or Sessions? It’s like deciding whether to be shot or poisoned. And to plunder a quote from a quintessential Washington hack: God, I hope he never gets it.
You can follow me on Twitter (@FrankBruni).
Open Secrets Report:
Rank: 84th in the Senate
with an estimated net worth of $489,009 in 2015.