As governor, senator and private citizen, Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings left a record of public service unmatched in South Carolina. If only our nation had leaders of his stature today.
Mr. Hollings knew his mind and spoke it without hesitating or mincing words. He was an advocate of an activist government that provides a better life for its citizens. Over the decades, his leadership produced beneficial results against the worst effects of poverty, fiscal irresponsibility and environmental degradation.
His accomplishments as governor during a single term, from 1959-63, resonate to this day — in technical education, economic development and job creation. Mr. Hollings recognized the necessity of creating opportunity in what was then primarily a rural state, and set the stage for the surge in manufacturing that has been a priority since.
One of Mr. Hollings’ finest moments as governor came near the end of his term as he supported the peaceful admission of Harvey Gantt as the first black student to Clemson. He told the General Assembly that the state should cease fighting the federal government. He urged lawmakers to “realize the lesson of 100 years ago and move on for the good of South Carolina and our United States. This should be done with dignity. It must be done with law and order."
His demand for federal fiscal accountability became a hallmark of his long Senate career (1966-2005), and was the basis for his short-lived presidential campaign in 1984. The patrician Mr. Hollings looked presidential, but his message of fiscal sacrifice didn't resonate with the voters in the New Hampshire primary. There was also some suggestion that his Lowcountry accent made the message even harder to get across.
Sen. Hollings recognized the practical necessity of restraining government spending for the sake of future generations. As the national debt ballooned, Sen. Hollings predicted a day when interest payments on the debt would hamstring the nation’s fiscal ability to respond to crises. Unfortunately, the nation has yet to heed his warning. When he retired the debt was at $7.9 trillion. Today it has reached $22 trillion.
As senator, Mr. Hollings was fiercely protective of homegrown manufacturers, including the state’s textile industry, and supported tariffs to keep jobs from moving offshore. He argued for trade agreements that gave U.S. companies fair trade, and not an illusion of "free trade."
It was one battle he couldn’t win, as President Bill Clinton backed the North American Free Trade Agreement sought by congressional Republicans. The senator’s arguments deserve review as the tariff debate is rejoined under President Donald Trump.
Mr. Hollings’ initially successful legislative efforts to restrain campaign spending and force federal budgetary restraint were unfortunately reversed in the courts. Nevertheless, there were victories at the federal level such as the creation of an anti-hunger program for women and infants, and the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for the study and protection of the environment.
Sen. Hollings was also instrumental in the passage of legislation to protect coastal waters and marsh habitat, marine mammals and fisheries. The importance of those protections has become increasingly apparent with the development pressures along the South Carolina coast, and with the revival of plans for offshore oil exploration.
The senator was always willing to fight for his state in Washington, whether demanding a better response from the "bureaucratic jackasses" of the Federal Emergency Management Agency following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, gaining federal funding for key purchases in the ACE Basin or the new Cooper River Bridge, or softening the blow of the Navy base and shipyard closure by the relocation of federal offices to the former base.
The senator could be devastatingly acerbic during Senate debate, but he rightly bemoaned the unrelenting rancor that has replaced the collegiality and bipartisanship of his early days in the Senate.
"Politics has become so polluted with pollsters, lobbyists, special interests, national TV, national political parties and money that the people's needs are often ignored," he wrote in his 2008 political autobiography, "Making Government Work." Mr. Hollings continued his efforts for better government and fiscal accountability after retirement in his regular op-ed columns.
And he took up the task of raising money for the cancer center that now bears his name at the Medical University of South Carolina.
As the state mourns his passing at age 97, South Carolinians should honor this brilliant, forthright leader and recognize his great contributions to the nation, particularly on behalf of fiscal responsibility and environmental safeguards. And they should recognize that the essential goals Sen. Hollings long advocated have yet to be fully achieved.