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Dec 20, 2004 5:20 pm

The Hollings Legacy

Yesterday’s New York Times featured an interview with retiring South Carolina senator Fritz Hollings, who author David Rosenbaum correctly describes as “the last of a breed once prevalent in Congress: the quick-witted wielder of the folksy metaphor and aphorism.” Some good Hollings lines from the article: Speaking about President Bush's effort to distance himself from the Enron scandal, he suggested the President claim,"I did not have political relations with that man, Ken Lay." And when asked about the durability of his marriage, he had the following reply:"People always wonder how Peatsy [his wife] and I stay together, with so many divorces around us. And a friend of ours used to say, 'It's simple. They have a lot in common. They're both in love with the same fella.'"

Hollings is also the last of another breed: the long-serving moderate-to-liberal Southern Democratic senator. The Palmetto State Democrat was longest serving junior senator in American history (for 36 of his 38 years in office, he was South Carolina’s junior senator, behind Strom Thurmond). Historians should refrain from prognostications, but I think it’s safe to say that it will be a long time before any Southern state re-elects a Democrat six times to the U.S. Senate.

Hollings came to the Senate in 1966 with the reputation as a very conservative Democrat. A former SC governor, he had unsuccessfully challenged the last of the state’s true liberals, Senator Olin Johnston, in the 1962 Democratic primary. Then, after Johnston’s death in 1965 necessitated a special election, he ousted the senator’s replacement, Don Russell, who LBJ described as one of his two favorite Southern governors (along with Carl Sanders of Georgia). Had he not done so, ironically, the seat almost certainly would have fallen into Republican hands. The special election for Johnston’s seat coincided with Strom Thurmond's first bid for reelection as a Republican, and in a year (1966) that was very strongly Republican in congressional elections. Hollings only won 51-49, a margin with which he would eventually become quite familiar.

Hollings sported a very conservative record for his first 10 years or so in the Senate, especially on national security and foreign policy issues. At the same time, however, he distinguished himself with an exceptionally good record on hunger and child poverty issues, one of the few senators to specialize in these questions. He first came to national prominence in 1980, when Jimmy Carter’s appointment of Budget Committee chairman Ed Muskie elevated Hollings, a renowned deficit hawk, to the Budget Committee chairmanship.

As the national Democratic Party moved to the center in the 1980s—and as the Reagan deficits made national Democrats far more sympathetic to Hollings’ budget-cutting preferences—the senator made a bid for President in 1984, but his efforts never received traction. The following year, he joined Phil Gramm and Warren Rudman in co-sponsoring the budget-cutting measure that eventually came to be known as Gramm-Rudman—which prompted Hollings to quip,"If you want a lesson in political anonymity, sponsor a bill with Phil Gramm."

By the late 1980s, with the exception of free trade (he was the Senate’s foremost protectionist), Hollings’ record was indistinguishable from that of most national Democrats. With Republicans assuming majority status in South Carolina, he came under strong challenge in his final two re-election bids, especially since he had pledged previously to retire and had taken to being even more blunt than usual in his public comments. But he was fortunate in his opponents. When his 1992 foe, Congressman Tommy Hartnett, challenged him to take a drug test, the senator shot back,"I'll take a drug test if you take an I.Q. test." As Hartnett wasn’t known for his intellectual acumen, the congressman wisely declined; Hollings squeaked through, 51-49. Then, in 1998, he drew as a foe Congressman Bob Inglis, who some might recall as the smarmily sanctimonious Judiciary Committee member during the Clinton impeachment hearings and trial.

Democrats pressed him to run for reelection in 2004: in retrospect, he was their only chance of holding the seat. But perhaps he was wise to retire, since he might very well have lost, and he therefore was able to go out on top. As Democrats search for a viable candidate for 2008, the Fritz Hollings of the early 1980s would seem ideal. Unfortunately for the party, there aren’t any such figures around.

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Dennis R. Nolan - 12/21/2004

As a carpetbagger from Wisconsin who has taught in SC for 30 years, I have to dissent from this spate of Hollings revisionism. He had his talents, which are now being exaggerated as he departs the stage, but he also had some major flaws, which are now being ignored. Here are a few examples:

First, there is his hypocrisy. He's hardly unique in that regard among politicians, but it should be kept in mind when evaluting him as a man of principle. His primary technique was to vote as a solid liberal for the first five years of each term, then take some very public (and surprising) conservative positions as he ran for re-election. This happened time and again.

Second, for a guy as slick as he was in some respects, he was just plain dumb in others. How smart does one have to be to realize that protectionism is an economic death sentence for a small southern state like SC? While Hollings was doing his best to preserve antiquated textile mills here (and, incidentally, to raise the cost of the clothes American consumers had to buy), far-sighted politicians in the upstate were transforming the economy. The Greenville area now has an amazing concentration of foreign investment --- BMW, automobile suppliers, chemicals, and much more --- and the jobs they garnered pay far more than any textile worker would earn. Hollings himself was exempt, of course: he bought his suits in London. (More hypocrisy, of course: protectionism for the normal consumer but "free trade" for the senator.)

His comment to Hartnett is funny to read, but it's indicative of how he treated anyone who disagreed with or challenged him. He is a thoroughly nasty individual unless you're on his side. Had the Democrats lost their mind and nominated him, that would have become clear.

He was also dishonest. Combined with his penchant for personal attacks, it made him devastating. Many years ago his son failed a law school program. Hollings went on the warpath, charging that a junior professor had breached the anonymous grading system and deliberately flunked the son because of his father. Leave aside the fact that the professor was a Democrat who had supported Hollings: the truth was that the failing grade came from a very senior professor who was beyond reproach. Even when Hollings learned the truth, he repeated the false charges rather than admit his error. Academics might also be interested to note that he commented at the time that the real problem was that the law school was "trying to be the Harvard of the Southeast." He didn't mean that as a compliment.

Then there were the racist comments about African leaders eating each other and about "wetbacks."

I could go on, but that's enough for now. KC is normally a sharp analyst, but distance must have blurred his vision of the real Hollings.

Richard Henry Morgan - 12/20/2004

For what it is worth, here's a part of the revisionism:

Here is a columnist who fell for the revisionism:

According to Daniel Hollis, the last surviving member of the centennial commission, and a holder of a Columbia University PhD in American history, the flag went up on April 11, 1961, the kickoff of the centennial. The kickoff was marked by a re-enactment of the firing on Ft. Sumter. Isn't that precious?

Ralph E. Luker - 12/20/2004

Given the context of South Carolina politics in 1961 and through the remainder of the decade, Hollings was a benign influence. Had he been any less conservative on racial politics then and there, he wouldn't have been in office.

Richard Henry Morgan - 12/20/2004

Hollings is also the guy who put the Confederate battle flag on top of the capitol in 1961. Some revisionist accounts have it flown there in accordance with a SC House resolution in 1962, but it went up in 1961.

Oscar Chamberlain - 12/20/2004

I lived in South Carolina from 1988-1991. Hollings was one of a number of pleasant surprises when I was down there.

However, on one recent issue, copyight, computers, and recordings, Hollings was pretty much in the recording industry's pocket. I have no idea if this reflected his convictions or the impact of money, but it soured my attitude toward him a bit.

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