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S.C. Republican Digging for Iraq Abuse Answers

Sen. Lindsey Graham rankles party elders with his pursuit of truth in the scandal that many others wish would fade away.

June 29, 2004|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Sen. Lindsey O. Graham knows exactly how to get under Democrats' skin. As a House member, he was one of the Republicans who prosecuted President Clinton during his impeachment trial.

Now the junior senator from South Carolina is giving the same kind of treatment to members of his own party.

While many Republicans would like to see the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal go away during this election year, Graham is among those who have pushed to keep the congressional investigation going. Otherwise, he argues, everything good that the United States has done in Iraq could be jeopardized.

"What are we fighting for?" he asked at a recent hearing. "To be like Saddam Hussein?"

Rankling his party elders is nothing new for Graham, a senator only since last year who has been compared to a better-known Republican contrarian, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. At 48, Graham is not only younger, but also more conservative and folksier -- with a bit of Southern charm.

He fills the seat occupied before him by Strom Thurmond, one of the Senate's most famous mavericks, who was elected to the chamber a year before Graham was born.

In Thurmond, "you're talking about a senator who once stood on his head on the Senate floor and who wrestled a fellow senator to the floor," said Steve Wainscott, a political scientist at Clemson University. "To some extent, Graham may be trying to follow in his footsteps."

Said Graham: "I'm 5 foot 7 and about 150 pounds. I don't think you'll see me rassling anybody to the floor. But people in South Carolina do like for their senators to go up there and shake it up a little bit."

The tough questions he has hurled at the Pentagon brass at hearings of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on which he serves, seem a natural fit for Graham -- who has been a military defense lawyer, prosecutor and now serves as a judge while holding the rank of colonel in the Air Force Reserves. He called the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal "the biggest breakdown of command I've ever seen in my 20 years as a military lawyer."

Graham is one of several Republicans on the committee who have pressed for Congress to aggressively investigate the scandal -- or, as Graham calls it, a "nest of criminal misconduct." While the Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee has largely left the investigation to the Pentagon, its Senate counterpart has conducted several hearings under chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.), and plans to hold more soon.

Graham sees the hearings as an opportunity to "show the world that Republicans and Democrats may disagree on the policy and the war in Iraq, but we have the ability to make sure those accountable are going to be held accountable."

For his trouble, Graham has been criticized by no less a figure than Vice President Dick Cheney. When Cheney suggested recently that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's critics should "get off his case and let him do his job," Graham shot back on NBC's "Meet the Press": "Nobody's on their back. We're doing our job."

He also has won a surprise admirer -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). "His experience in the military, his experience as a judge advocate general means that he knows what this system is and how it's supposed to work," she said recently on "Fox News Sunday."

Raised in the mill town of Central, S.C., Graham and his younger sister lived in the back rooms of a beer joint that his parents ran. The place had a pool room where Graham, as a teenager, racked balls. "Everything I needed to know about politics I learned there," he has joked.

After finishing law school at the University of South Carolina, he joined the Air Force, serving 6 1/2 years on active duty. After his parents died, he legally adopted his younger sister so that she would qualify for any military survivor benefits should something happen to him.

While on active duty, Graham defended a B-52 pilot on a marijuana charge, leading to an appearance on a "60 Minutes" segment on the Air Force's faulty drug-testing program.

In 1988, Graham went into private law practice and, a year later, joined the South Carolina Air National Guard. He was called to active duty during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, serving stateside briefing pilots on the law of armed conflict.

In 1990, Graham got interested in politics and worked to elect a Democrat to the South Carolina Legislature. Graham, upset that the incumbent had been rude to his minister, ran against the Democrat two years later and won.

Then in 1994 he won a seat in the U.S. House -- the first Republican to be elected from his district since Reconstruction. In 2002, he was elected to the Senate.

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