Fritz Hollings was a great man. Everyone agrees on that.
Joe Riley called Hollings South Carolina’s most “consequential” public servant. Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who was crushed by Hollings in a Senate race, said he “was among the best of us.” And Joe Biden, Hollings’ Senate desk mate for 32 years, said he was a man who evolved “to write the great story of our times.”
“He was South Carolina,” Biden said at Hollings’ funeral last month. “With every breath he brought hope to so many in this state and around the country.”
Here’s what no one has said: Fritz Hollings, great man that he was, could probably not get elected in South Carolina today. Hollings vs. Lindsey Graham in 2020? My money would be on Graham, though I am making book, too, that few will be calling the Great Apologist a great man the day he packs it in.
In our hyper-partisan world, in a South Carolina where no Democrat has been elected statewide in 13 years, even a politician with Hollings’ skills would be hard-pressed to straddle the divide between conservative whites on one hand and blacks and progressives on the other as he did for a half century.
Every four years Hollings was there for the Democratic presidential nominee. He supported Jack Kennedy (enthusiastically), George McGovern (tepidly), but he was there, even as South Carolina changed from deep blue to deep red. Today, Graham would wrap himself around Donald Trump — game over.
The ground was eroding under Hollings as the years passed. In 1986, he buried McMaster by 27 points; six years later, his margin against Thomas Hartnett was just 3 points. When Hollings retired in 2004, he was replaced by Republican Jim DeMint, who was followed by Republican Tim Scott. Scott, the state’s most popular politician, would beat Hollings even worse than Graham would.
“If you had a candidate with the same issue positions as Hollings, that candidate would likely be defeated today,” said Robert Oldendick, a University of South Carolina political scientist who has followed the state’s politics for three decades. He compares Hollings to Vincent Sheheen and James Smith, the last two Democrats to run and lose for governor.
Oldendick doesn’t completely dismiss Hollings’ chances against Graham, given his ability to evolve and balance one constituency against another. “It would be an interesting race to handicap,” Oldendick said.
There are endless examples of how Hollings took on his critics, armed often with his acerbic wit.
The guy was good. All he accomplished shows just how good.
Hollings started as a segregationist governor who presided over the raising of the Confederate flag over the Statehouse. And he grew to become among the first of the “New South” Democrats — before Jimmy Carter, Reubin Askew and Bob McNair — moderates who moved away from conservative racial politics and embraced broader economic opportunity.
He championed ending “the national disgrace” of hunger in America, expanding food stamps and creating a nutrition program for women, infants and children. He was an environmentalist, sponsoring the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Ocean Dumping Act and more.
Always, though, there was balance, keenly aware of his times and his constituency. He was a fiscal conservative, supported the military, opposed unions. He voted for conservative judges and against Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice. No one got everything they wanted in Hollings, but they got a lot.
The Democratic Party, as it slides to the left this election cycle, could learn from how Hollings maintained that balance, favoring evolution over revolution. The lessons are just as clear for South Carolina voters: We would be poorer today without the great senator from Charleston, who saw government as not the enemy but as the means of a better life for all.
We need more people like Fritz Hollings, and it matters not at all if there is a “D” or “R” at the end of their name on the ballot.
Steve Bailey writes for the Commentary page. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sjbailey1060.