Lindsey Graham, whose bachelorhood became the focal point of his presidential campaign in the past week, nearly got married in his late 20s while serving in the Air Force in Europe, South Carolina’s senior U.S. senator said Friday.
The woman, whom Graham identified only as Sylvia, was a flight attendant for the German airline Lufthansa. She was of Hungarian descent but opted to stay with her ailing mother in Austria rather than join Graham in returning home to South Carolina, he said.
Graham said he is comfortable with who he is, adding that his life’s path was “a blessing from God” and that being single shouldn’t be a stigma.
“At the end of the day, I’ve never seen a sign above the White House that said ‘single people need not apply,’ ” he said.
The pressure has been building on Graham to address his being a bachelor, with the White House mocking his comment to a British tabloid that he’d have a “rotating first lady” if he became president. A fellow Republican senator also chimed in — Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk was caught on a hot mic Thursday joking that Graham was a “bro with no ho,” using a derogatory term for women.
Graham, 59, would be the first unmarried president to take the oath of office since Grover Cleveland in 1885. In an interview published Tuesday, Graham said he didn’t see any problem with not having a first lady.
“Well, I’ve got a sister. She could play that role if necessary,” he told the Daily Mail Online. “I’ve got a lot of friends. We’ll have a rotating first lady.”
The comment went viral, gaining Graham as much notoriety as his hawkish stances on sending troops to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria and standing up to Russia and China.
On Thursday, the White House press secretary mocked Graham’s presidential aspirations and rotating first lady comment.
“It’s hard, at least, to imagine this White House without this first lady,” Josh Earnest said of Michelle Obama. “She obviously has played such an important role ... advocating for the kinds of things she and the president believe should be national priorities.”
Earnest added that he couldn’t “imagine a Graham White House and what a Graham White House would be without a first lady. But obviously I would defer to the senator to describe what that would be.”
On Thursday, Kirk’s remark created a whole new furor about Graham being a bachelor.
“I’ve been joking with Lindsey. Did you see that? He’s going to have a rotating first lady. He’s a bro with no ho,” Kirk said.
Graham on Friday attributed the attention his and other’s remarks have drawn to the national media learning about aspects of his personal life which are common knowledge from his past campaigns in his home state.
“People in South Carolina know me,” he said.
Graham, however, had never publicly mentioned being seriously involved with a woman named Sylvia before. Graham said he met Sylvia in the mid-1980s through his roommate, who was dating Sylvia’s roommate. At the time, Graham was stationed at Rhein-Main Air Base. He said her family had escaped from communist Hungary before settling in the West.
Based on recent demographics in the U.S., being single might not necessarily be bad for Graham’s White House prospects. There are more unmarried people in the U.S. than married ones, recent data shows.
“I think the electorate is more tolerant than at any point in U.S. history,” said College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts. “It was a big deal when John Kennedy was elected as the first Catholic. It was certainly historic when the first African-American was elected in 2008. I don’t see being single as a barrier to electability.”
Others warn that there’s still a reality in U.S. politics, especially among conservative Republicans who see tradition as important.
“Voters want to see the first family, they want the whole family,” said Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard. “And that’s a problem for him.”
Graham would rather spend his time talking about the rise of ISIS and strengthening national defense than in answering questions about why he’s not married, Woodard said. “It’s getting personalized for him. That’s bad for him.”
Graham, a three-term U.S. senator from Seneca, turns 60 in July.
Even with statistics on his side, Woodard, of Clemson, and who has advised Graham on some of his earlier campaigns, said there will be sectors of the electorate who’ll look at Graham and see something missing no matter what his message is.
“The first family is what they look at,” he said. “The first lady, the children, all of it.”
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.