Ode to the Purple Senator: Lindsey Graham, Republican, South Carolina

One of the nine Republicans who voted last Thursday to confirm Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court was Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. (The final vote was 68-31, with only Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, unable to make the vote).

Mr. Graham had announced his vote in a Senate floor speech July 22 after, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee during her confirmation hearings, he had sharply questioned then-Judge Sotomayor on her "wise Latina" speech and some of her more contentious decisions. It was a politically risky vote.

What made the vote more significant was his explanation of the vote in the speech, which appropriately deserves tribute in a column entitled, "Purple Nation."

I got to know then-Rep. Graham some 10-11 years ago under adverse circumstances. I was on TV virtually every night defending President Clinton from efforts by the House Republicans to impeach him; Mr. Graham was, by far, the most effective of all the House floor managers in arguing the case for impeachment; and frequently we would find ourselves in "Green Rooms" (holding rooms) at CNN or MSNBC before we went on air to debate. And it was hard not to get friendly with him and small talk -- he's that nice a guy in person.

On one occasion after a TV show, not too long after the Senate trial, in which President Clinton was acquitted, he asked me if I wanted to have a beer and compare perspectives on the whole experience. I of course said yes -- curious as to how the world looked through his eyes, still thinking of him as a partisan conservative Republican, driven by dislike of Mr. Clinton.

I was surprised by what I heard and came to know about Mr. Graham. He left me with the impression, without saying in so many words, that in retrospect he wished there had been an alternative to impeachment. He talked about some of the possible lost opportunities to resolve the matter short of impeachment, especially not long after the November 1998 mid-term congressional elections, when the Democrats had surprised everyone (including themselves) and actually gained seats.

But he still strongly believed he had done the right thing by supporting impeachment.

I just as strongly disagreed with him. I still felt deep anger, seeing the impeachment process as being as illegitimate in its naked partisanship as was the attempted impeachment by the "Radical Republicans" of Andrew Johnson in 1868. Nevertheless, I realized partisanship was not the force driving Mr. Graham. I could not help but respect his sincerity and authenticity.

Shortly after Rep. Graham became Sen. Graham in January 2001, our paths crossed in a Senate office building and I congratulated him on his election to the Senate. I asked him whether he had gotten to know yet the then-new freshman senator from New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton. He said not really, and was a little concerned that she would still be angry with him for the position he had taken regarding the impeachment of her husband.

I told him that the Mrs. Clinton I had known since law school was one of the nicest, warmest, most decent people I had ever met and -- most of all -- one of the most pragmatic and focused people on doing public good through public service. In other words, I urged him to get to know her and try to work with her and predicted he would end up liking her a lot and they would work well together.

Thus, months later, watching a cable news show one night, I was not surprised to see Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Graham standing together at a press conference, announcing the passage of a veterans health care bill they had co-sponsored as members of the Armed Services Committee.

Senator Graham's willingness to work with and accomplish something good with Mrs. Clinton and many other instances of his rising above partisan politics was consistent with the sentiments he expressed in his July 22 Senate floor speech on his vote on the Sotomayor confirmation.

The speech started with his declaring that one important factor in his decision was that "elections matter" -- and that, the people having spoken in November 2008, a president should be given some deference and should be entitled to nominate a Supreme Court justice that reflects his political philosophy.

"Having been one of the chief supporters of Sen. McCain and one of the chief opponents of then-Sen. Obama," he said, "I feel [Mr. Obama] deserves some deference on my part when it comes to his first election to the Supreme Court."

Then Mr. Graham did something unusual in the usual world of partisan Washington, where what's good for the goose is so often not good for the gander. Mr. Graham referred to the "well qualified" rating that Judge Sotomayor had received from the American Bar Association.

"During the Alito and Roberts confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court under President Bush, I used [the ABA] rating as a positive for both those nominees. I feel, as a Republican, I can't use it one time and ignore it the other," he said

Shocking, truly shocking.

Mr. Graham is willing to be intellectually honest and consistent, rejecting the political double standard that has become all-too-frequent in both parties in Washington for at least the last few decades.

Finally, perhaps most importantly, Mr. Graham showed the ability to break the vicious "gotcha" political cycle -- the political version of the Golden Rule, "Do to them what they did to us." Mr. Graham pointed out that in the last round of that cycle, under President Bush, many Democrats, including Mr. Obama, voted against Judge Roberts and Judge Alito on largely ideological grounds, as they stated in their own floor statements, despite the two men's obvious outstanding intellectual and professional qualifications. But Mr. Graham in his Senate speech stated that he was going to apply the true Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

And so he declared:

"I am starting over. I don't want to turn over the confirmation of judges to special interest groups on the left or the right and that is where we are headed if we don't watch it. We can't make every Supreme Court vacancy a battle over our culture."

Just to be sure this column doesn't result in hurting Mr. Graham back home among his conservative Republican supporters, let me remind everyone that I disagree with Mr. Graham on almost every major issue. He is far too conservative for me; I am a proud liberal Democrat.

But for some time I have considered Mr. Graham a truly rare politician: someone who can maintain his conservative principles but still reach across the aisle to find common ground, even, at times, with liberals like me.

He is, in short, the exemplary "Purple Senator" and perfect subject of this column.

I salute him -- and wish we had more Lindsey Grahams serving in the U.S. Congress.

Lanny J. Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton, served as a member of President George W. Bush's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. He is the author of Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics is Destroying America.

This piece is also published in the Washington Times and at http://pundits.thehill.com today. This column appears in Mr. Davis's weekly column in Monday's Washington Times, called "Purple Nation." Mr. Davis also is a weekly guest on Sirius/XM Radio's "Press Pool" on Mondays or Tuesdays to discuss his weekly column.