Lindsey Graham's deranged joke: What he revealed about white male anxiety

Saying “white men in male-only clubs are going to do great in my presidency” ensures this: He'll never be president

Published October 31, 2014 3:04PM (EDT)

  (AP/Rainier Ehrhardt)
(AP/Rainier Ehrhardt)

No, it won’t cost Sen. Lindsey Graham reelection. But his “joke” in short remarks to the Hibernian Society of Charleston, South Carolina, about how as president (?) he’ll protect the rights of embattled “white men,” so perfectly illuminates the undercurrent of white male anxiety that’s driving this election – and every election in the age of Barack Obama – that it’s getting plenty of attention. And it should.

The frequently awkward Graham told the crowd, apparently by telephone, “I’m trying to help you with your tax status. I’m sorry the government’s so f——- up. If I get to be president, white men in male-only clubs are going to do great in my presidency.”

Where to begin? We only have a snippet of Graham’s speech, so we don’t know where he was going with the tax status “joke,” but he’s presumably referring to the growing social disapproval of all-male clubs in the 21st century. “I’m sorry the government’s so f---- up” is just boilerplate now when talking to men in the South.

It’s the promise that “white men in male only clubs are going to do great in my presidency” that’s getting the most attention. The Hibernian Society is an old Irish Catholic group, fairly conservative, and Graham’s campaign told Yahoo News he was intending to needle the group – but I don’t see how.

Is he suggesting Irish Catholics aren’t white men? That was an idea that once prevailed in racist conservative circles in the South, by the way. When Frederick Law Olmstead visited in the 1850s, he marveled at plantation owners who thought “dishonest” Irish workers less reliable than African slaves, who could do “twice as much work” as men of Hibernian ancestry. Graham wasn’t having fun with that old history, was he?

Nah, probably not.

Graham is indeed harking back to an earlier time, but not that early. It’s when white men sat in their white male clubs and ran the world, before uppity women and Negroes began complaining and asking for equality. It’s like Republican congressman Steve Southerland inviting men to a male-only whiskey and cigars fundraiser whose invitation instructed “tell the misses not to wait up.” Times were simpler and better then, and the entire Republican project is designed to reassure anxious white men that things can be that way again (although with demographic trends being what they are, I don’t see how).

In another clip, Graham asks, "We got any Presbyterians here? We got any Baptists? They're the ones that drink and don't admit it." The crowd laughs. A little harmless interdenominational Protestant needling never hurt anyone, although it’s not clear Graham realizes he’s talking to an all Catholic group, or trying to play on Catholic prejudices against Protestants. But that’s the least of his comments.

Graham has been trying to float the idea of a presidential bid, which is preposterous. The Washington Post’s Nia-Malika Henderson thinks an already tall order just got taller. She offers some free advice: “If you are a Southern white male senator, it's probably not the best idea to tell a joke that touches on race, gender and privilege when your party is struggling so much with people who aren't white males -- particularly in the South.”

But so far Graham hasn’t apologized for his “jokes.”

"Senator Graham is confident the people of South Carolina will judge him based on his record of accomplishment and will also put in its proper perspective these jokes, which were taken out of context and delivered in a private, roast-type dinner before a well-respected charity in Charleston," Graham's spokesman Tate Zeigler said in a statement.

Lindsey Graham was never going to be president before his Hibernian Society star turn, but never just got a little longer.

By Joan Walsh