Lawyer, congressman, U.S. senator. Graham was born in Central on July 9, 1955, the son of Florence James Graham, a restaurant/bar owner, and his wife, Millie. He graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1976 and the University of South Carolina Law School in 1981. From 1982 to 1988 he was on active duty with the Air Force as a staff judge advocate (military attorney). Since then, he has continued his military career in the reserves. Among his duties during the first Gulf War was briefing pilots on the law of armed conflict. Graham left the air force in 1988 and opened a law practice in Oconee County.
Graham served one term in the South Carolina House before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives during the 1994 “Republican sweep,” in which the Republicans seized control of both the Senate and House for the first time in forty years. It was also the first time a Republican had represented South Carolina’s Third Congressional District since 1877. In 1994 Graham campaigned on Georgia congressman Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America platform, but three years later Graham and a group of conservative Republicans tried unsuccessfully to end Gingrich’s tenure as Speaker of the House. Graham came to national prominence in 1998 when he served as a prosecutor in the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, convened to determine whether Clinton committed perjury by trying to conceal an affair with a staff intern.
Graham was elected to four terms as U.S. congressman from the Third District. He worked to balance the federal budget, lower taxes, and increase military spending. During the 2000 presidential election, Graham supported U.S. Senator John McCain rather than George W. Bush for the Republican nomination. Graham’s support for the somewhat maverick McCain exemplified his occasional willingness to break with the Republican establishment. Graham defeated former judge and College of Charleston president Alex Sanders in 2002 to replace Strom Thurmond in the U.S. Senate. As senator, Graham has supported the agenda of President George W. Bush, voting for the president’s tax cut plan and supporting the war in Iraq, although not uncritically. He was an outspoken critic of the way U.S. soldiers treated Iraqi captives in 2004. “When you are the good guys, you’ve got to act like the good guys,” Graham told a television reporter. That same year, Graham showed his willingness to compromise with Democrats when he and Senator Hillary Clinton coauthored a bill to improve benefits for soldiers serving in the National Guard.