On July 15, 2015, a long-shot candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination was asked in a radio interview whether he could be taken seriously as a contender for the leader of the free world with his unorthodox lifestyle of…never having been married.
His response, calmly, in a contemplative Southern drawl: “Married people have screwed up the world.”
And, with those seven words, I was smitten. Sixty-year-old Lindsey Graham, the senior Republican Senator from South Carolina, was clearly winning at life (even if his pull numbers sucked), and he was my new hero.
At the time, I was 30 and was going through the worst breakup of my life. It was a situation that I largely blamed on myself because I had kept the whole thing going out of the impulse that, well, someone in her thirties ought to be able to keep a relationship alive even through the rough spells. In fact, the whole thing was a thoroughly unhappy coupling of two incompatible people, and we’d been in denial over our incompatibility for some time. But I’d fought for it. I figured I was at a phase in my life in which I should be able to handle something long-term. In truth, I was fighting for something I thought I should want, not for something I really wanted. And it had taken quite some time to realize this.
Once it was finally over, the responses from many of my friends weren’t making me any happier.
“You need to install Hinge.”
“It’s going to take three first dates a week, but you’re going to meet your next boyfriend really soon.”
“Read this self-help book.”
“You’re in your 30s. Look into egg-freezing.”
“You have got to meet this guy I know from the dog park.”
All of this well-meaning advice just made me want to curl up on the couch with my cat and a glass of whiskey. Maybe I didn’t freaking care. Maybe I was sick of the dating game and sick of people deciding that, if I chose to distance myself from dating, I was throwing in the towel and dooming myself to a life of sadness. Maybe I just wanted to be unapologetic about my own lifestyle — the kind of don’t-give-a-damn irreverence that makes someone declare through a national news medium that “married people have screwed up the world.”
Lindsey Graham? Single, stubborn and unlikely to ever change. I will take this over Taylor Swift stabbing cakes any day.
As cheesy as it sounds, it helps to be able to find parallels in the public eye for the way that we happen to be feeling and hoping. Or, to put it in the parlance of our times, we want our celebrity #squad. But as a single woman, this proved tough, as our heroines seem to keep deciding they’d rather be more conventional. Beyoncé, once the embodiment of “single ladies” empowerment, is now married with a kid. Amy Schumer has that hot lumberjack boyfriend. Taylor Swift may have her girl-power posse, but she also posts all those Instagrams of her cuddling with what’s-his-face on that inflatable swan.
Lindsey Graham? Single, stubborn and unlikely to ever change. I will take this over Taylor Swift stabbing cakes any day. So, I googled him. (A much better experience than googling Rick Santorum, for the record.)
The first thing I learned is that there are many people who think it is very much not okay for Lindsey Graham to be not only single but also seemingly content with a lifelong bachelor status (and not of the playboy variety). Mostly, this translated into assumptions that he’s gay and that, being a Republican, he clearly felt the need to hide it. He was nicknamed “Miss Lindsey.” A Tea Party primary opponent actually called him “ambiguously gay” on the campaign trail.
And you know what? Maybe he is gay. I don’t care. But gay or straight or something else entirely, Graham felt no impulse to further his own political gain by faking a happy relationship to seem more normal, more acceptable — everything he was supposed to be. He didn’t play the game. Respect, Senator.
The second thing I learned is that his wacky one-liners are absolutely legendary.
In a debate, he declared: “The first thing I’m going to do as president: We’re gonna drink more.” (On another occasion during the campaign, he got drunk on live TV, poured shots for a bunch of people and played a half-hilarious, half-cringe-worthy game of F-M-K.)
Now, lest you think that South Carolina somehow elected a complete troll or a fringe whackjob to the Senate, be it known that Graham has a bipartisan reputation that few nationally elected officials of either party can match. But even here, he doesn’t drop the sense of humor. In breaking with many members in his party and choosing to trust scientists’ warnings on climate change, he said, “I’m not a scientist, and I’ve got the grades to prove it.”
He said sequestration is “Latin for ‘doing really dumb things.’”
And he dismissed Vladimir Putin as “a guy riding around on a horse without a shirt.” (Has he seen the Photoshop job with the bear?)
Yet Graham is not without a sense of melancholy that perhaps everyone else was right, that maybe he’s chosen the wrong path. The loneliness in his tone was palpable when, in one of the “kids’ table” presidential debates of the 2016 primary road show, he talked about how as a 60-year-old who never married and has no children, he’d be willing to take one for the team in order to keep Social Security going for the people who need it. The media was jarred, even a little creeped out by this anecdote he dropped. Because, I surmise, it’s rare for a politician to show humanity like that. This is someone who has had doubts about his own path in life, who has probably wondered whether maybe he should’ve listened to everyone who told him to do things differently.
And then, just as suddenly as it appears, the wistfulness is gone and he’s back to being that crotchety old Southerner who wants the world to get off his lawn. Around the same time in the election cycle, when Graham was asked how he de-stresses, he said he goes to movie theaters alone: “Cause you’re sittin’ in the dark and nobody’s botherin’ ya.”
With poll numbers failing to crack one percent, Graham eventually ended his bid for the presidency. But for a few months, there he was: The guy who kept getting questioned for being just slightly too off-kilter, for not following expectations and for not listening to what anyone told him to do. And I do miss his occasional prominence in the headlines. In one of the most vulnerable times of my life, I needed to see some example out there of someone who lived unapologetically while still functioning within the real world rather than living on its fringes.
And there was, perhaps, no one better to demonstrate this than a short, cranky politician in a suit who chose to criticize one of his fellow candidates with, “Princess Buttercup would not like this.”
(Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr.com)