Presidential Aspiration Born From A Modest, And Tragic, Beginning : It's All Politics "It's not a log cabin like Abe Lincoln, but he grew up in a mobile home, which is South Carolina's equivalent of it," said one of Sen. Lindsey Graham's former classmates.
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Presidential Aspiration Born From A Modest, And Tragic, Beginning

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Presidential Aspiration Born From A Modest, And Tragic, Beginning

Presidential Aspiration Born From A Modest, And Tragic, Beginning

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ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

Republican presidential candidate Lindsey Graham went from modest beginnings in the small town of Central, S.C. to the United States Senate. As part of our series, The Journey Home, NPR's Juana Summers traveled to Central to find out how the town has shaped Sen. Graham.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Central, S.C. is a blink and you might miss it kind of town between Atlanta and Charlotte. Central's Main Street runs next to a stretch of train tracks...

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN)

SUMMERS: ...And is dotted with storefronts - a car repair shop, a Mexican restaurant, a real estate office.

WARREN MOWRY: He was just a little guy from Central, S.C., which I had to look up on a map. I'm a South Carolina native, and I had no clue where it was.

SUMMERS: Warren Mowry went to law school with Graham at the University of South Carolina. He says Graham was proud of his hometown. First, Graham and his family lived in a room behind their business, the Sanitary Cafe - a bar and pool hall on Main Street. Then they moved into a trailer.

MOWRY: It's not a log cabin like Abe Lincoln, but he grew up in a mobile home, which is South Carolina's equivalent of it, I guess (laughter).

SUMMERS: Then, they moved into the house next door. Today, that house is an Italian restaurant run by Greg Demetri.

GREG DEMETRI: So this room right here - the yellow room, which we now call the wine room - was his parents' bedroom.

SUMMERS: There's no contest. Graham is Central's most famous resident. So when Demetri found out that a U.S. senator used to live in his restaurant, he rolled out the red carpet. He invited Graham to his grand opening and even made the senator one of his favorite meals, chicken parmesan. Today, every menu has Graham's autograph scrawled on it and soon...

DEMETRI: We are now going to create something called the presidential burger. So, now we have the Sen. Lindsey Graham chicken parmesan and now we'll create the presidential burger.

SUMMERS: Long before there was a presidential burger, Graham was a C-student with big dreams. His classmates laughed when Graham declared freshman year that he wanted to be governor one day. He played on the football team, but wasn't very good. On weekends, Graham pitched in at the family bar. That's one place where Graham experienced the South's racial divisions. Central's population was one-fifth black, but Graham wrote in his recent memoir that African-Americans weren't allowed to drink at the Sanitary Cafe until the early 1970s. After the bar was integrated, Graham's father F.J. stepped in to stop white customers from hassling black customers. A childhood friend, Tom Von Kanel, still lives nearby.

TOM VON KANEL: There are a lot of times when I've heard Lindsey talk about a couple of things that some people may raise their eyebrows a bit or say that's a bit blunt. I think that's his dad. That's the son of the father's, you know, telling it like it is.

SUMMERS: After graduation, Graham headed off to the University of South Carolina where he joined the Air Force ROTC program. He was the pride of the family, the first to leave home and go off to college. But Graham still came back to Central, riding into town on the Greyhound bus some weekends to visit his parents and teenage sister. While he was still in college, both his parents died of natural causes 15 months apart. Graham was 22 and responsible for his 13-year-old sister.

DARLINE GRAHAM NORDONE: I can remember the day my father passed away, standing in the living room of that house, absolutely scared to death.

SUMMERS: That's Graham's younger sister, Darline Graham Nordone.

NORDONE: And Lindsey wrapped his arms around me and promised me that he would always be there for me and always take care of me.

SUMMERS: Von Kanel says Graham stepped up after his parents died.

VON KANEL: In a way, I think it was a crucible for him. It was a point at which he could use these tough times as a teaching point to make himself better, give himself more wisdom, make himself more resilient, really focus on what was really important, and I think he did that.

SUMMERS: His sister went to live with an aunt and uncle in nearby Seneca. But as Von Kanel tells it, she was always her big brother's first priority.

VON KANEL: But then he's going to law school. But then he's got the family business. You have three priorities that not only compete; they butt up against each other.

SUMMERS: Graham even became his sister Darline's legal guardian so she could receive his Air Force benefits. Even though he was away, he made sure to keep her in line - that she was hanging out with the right crowd and had everything she needed. Warren Mowry watched it all play out.

MOWRY: Virtually every weekend on Friday afternoons, once he was done with classes, he was gone. He was back up to Central to work in the store and to check on his sister and make sure she was OK. He did that every weekend.

SUMMERS: Graham announced his presidential campaign standing across the street from the business and home that his parents built. He said he was lucky to come from a place like Central.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEN/PRES CAND LINDSEY GRAHAM: There a lot of so-called self-made people in this world. I am not one of them. My family, my friends, neighbors and my faith picked me up when I was down, believed in me when I had doubts. You made me the man I am today.

SUMMERS: Juana Summers, NPR News, Central, S.C.

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