I was awakened Saturday morning by a notification on my iPhone — Fritz Hollings had died. I didn’t get around to writing something about it that day, or the next day, or the next, because it just seemed like too big a task.
And it was too big a task, remembering Fritz and what he meant to me and other South Carolinians. And I don’t have time to undertake it today, either. So here are some scattered thoughts, rather than a coherent whole:
- First, he was of that generation — the postwar generation — that believed in using government to get things done. Big things, things that made life better in their state and country. He saw it as his duty. He brought great energy and great intellect to that task, throughout his career. He didn’t let ideology or party or what other people might think of him get in the way of that mission. Young people today by and large don’t know what it was like to have this kind of elected leader, although we still have some around. You know, like Fritz’s younger friend Joe Biden.
- He may have been the first politician I ever met and shook hands with. Or maybe it was Strom. Or maybe it was a state senator. I just remember being taken by my grandfather to an event in Bennettsville, at the Marboro County Country Club. I was introduced to someone called “the senator.” I can’t remember who it was. Maybe it wasn’t Fritz, because he wasn’t in the Senate until 1966, and surely I’d remember it better if it had been that late. This was probably in the ’50s, so probably Strom. But my point in mentioning it is that he and Strom were both in public office most of my life, and their service extends as far back as I remember and beyond. Say “senator” to me and I picture one of them. Both held some sort of public office well before I was born. And most of that time, they’d have been called “senator.” As in, Boy, shake hands with the senator…
- Fritz is the reason we have our state technical schools, which in turn are a big reason why we have BMW and other major employers. And the way he got them was so old-school, so pre-Watergate Morality, so whatever-it-takes, so non-21st century, that it is a thing of beauty. Basically, he took a bottle of bourbon with him to visit one of the main obstacles of getting his tech schools passed, Senate Finance Chairman Edgar A. Brown. They drank the bottle together, and when it was empty Fritz had a one-paragraph agreement that founded his tech system. And countless thousands of South Carolinians have benefited.
- While Hilton Head was booming as a destination for the rich, Fritz Hollings showed the nation aspects of life in South Carolina the Chamber of Commerce wouldn’t have appreciated. Here’s how The New York Times described his “poverty tours” in its obit: “Having grown up in segregated Charleston, attended a segregated college and served in a segregated army, Mr. Hollings had little contact with poor black people and initially opposed civil rights legislation. Guided by N.A.A.C.P. officials, he toured poor black and white areas of his state in 1968 and 1969, and what he saw shocked him: rat-infested slums where families subsisted on grits and greens; children infected with worms, living in shacks without lights, heat or water; a mentally disabled mother of 10 who had never heard of food stamps. ‘There is hunger in South Carolina,’ a solemn Mr. Hollings told a Senate committee. ‘I know as a public servant I am late to the problem,’ adding, ‘We’ve got work to do in our own backyard, just as anybody who’s candid knows he has work in his own backyard, and I’d rather clean it up than cover it up.'” In other words, he faced the real problems of South Carolina without blinking.
- In the ’80s, the Gramm–Rudman–Hollings Balanced Budget Act constituted the most serious effort to bring the nation’s spending in line with its income in my lifetime. He remained a budget hawk for the rest of his career. When other Democrats were claiming to have produced balanced budgets in the late ’90s, he scoffed — if the budgets were “balanced,” how come the national debt kept growing?
- They may have named that new bridge after Arthur Ravenel, but I enjoyed this anecdote from my cousin Jason, who remembers how relentless Fritz was in taking every possible opportunity to get South Carolina what it needed: “I drove over the Ravenel Bridge today and remembered Fritz Hollings. When I interned with him, one of my dad’s college buddies was the Deputy Chief of Staff at the White House and was nominated to be Secretary of Transportation. Senator Hollings was the Chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and would vote to approve the nomination. As I walked out of the Senator’s office to go to the White House to have lunch with Andy Card, the Senator said, ‘Tell Andy Card if he wants my vote, we need a new bridge over the Cooper River. OK boy, go get us that bridge.’ I did, Senator Hollings, I did…”
- Fritz was known for his, um, frankness. A lot of people’s favorite story was when he answered a Japanese insult to the American work ethic by suggesting we should draw a mushroom cloud with the caption, “Made in America by lazy and illiterate Americans and tested in Japan.” Another might be when he said to our current governor, “I’ll take a drug test if you’ll take an IQ test.” But my favorite was when he’d just been re-elected after a tough challenge in 1992, and said that now “I don’t have to get elected to a bloomin’ thing. And I don’t have to do things that are politically correct. The hell with everybody. I’m free at last.” Of course, he ran again in 1998 against Bob Inglis, and we voted him in again. You can’t vote a guy like that out of office. People say they like Trump because he’s not “politically correct.” Well, neither was Fritz. But he didn’t sound like an idiot. Therein lies the difference.
- Fritz was equally frank about what he thought of the press, and his criticism (unlike Trump’s) was right on the money. He fully understood that the press covered politics like sports — ignoring what was important, and yammering endlessly about winning and losing and strategy. My longtime colleague Paul Osmundson shared the picture above of Fritz and our late, dear friend Lee Bandy. Well, Bandy wrote his share of horse-race stories, many while I was his editor. And I well remember the editorial board meetings in which Fritz ripped into Lee for it. The senator complained that he tried and tried to get reporters to write about substantive issues, but “Ah can’t get past THE BANDY HURDLE. THE BANDY HURDLE! All he wants to talk about is who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s winning? Who’s losing? The Bandy hurdle…” And he was right. But don’t blame Lee (who chuckled through these tirades). They all do it. And we editors all share the blame. (This was the bane of my experience with the campaign last year. I wanted to talk about who should be governor and why, and reporters wanted to talk about campaign ad strategy, or which 2020 hopefuls were coming to campaign with us. Yeah, I hear ya, senator…)
- I first met Joe Biden through Fritz. I’d always wanted to meet him, and since they were friends, one time in the 2000s when I saw Biden was coming to town, I called Fritz to ask him to ask Joe to come by and meet with us. He did, and Joe came by on a Friday afternoon (our hardest workday) and talked for two-and-a-half hours. It was stressful, knowing we’d have to get all those pages out before we left that night, but I enjoyed it, and appreciated that Hollings set it up.
- I mentioned Bob Inglis. He and Fritz became friends after their contest in ’98. I liked what he said on Facebook: “Over lunch in Charleston in 2015 (we’d long since made up after the 1998 race), Senator Hollings told me that he’d shrunk 2 inches–6’2″ to 6′. I wish I had said, ‘No, Senator, you haven’t shrunk a bit–not in what you’ve meant to SC, not in what you’ve meant to America.’ Farewell, sir.”
- Speaking of Republicans, when Strom left office and Fritz finally became our senior senator after 36 years, he took Strom’s replacement under his wing. He encouraged Lindsey Graham and had a lot of good things to say about him. I’m thinking he was probably proud of Lindsey when he said all those honest things about Trump back during the 2016 election. And I think he’d be scornful of what Lindsey has become. You’d never, ever have seen Fritz kowtowing to someone like Trump — or to anyone, for that matter.
I’ve got to get back to work. And when I go home tonight, I need to get back to reading Ron Chernow’s book on Alexander Hamilton. I originally got that book because Fritz called (about something else, probably one of his opeds) and told me how wonderful it was, way back when I was still at the paper. Least I can do in the senator’s memory is finish it…