COLUMBIA, S.C. — Americans aren’t the only people who are fascinated by South Carolina politics and the presidential primary process.
During the past several days, including Saturday’s Republican primary and Tuesday night’s Democratic town hall, a variety of foreign dignitaries have visited the state to catch the spectacle. Ahem, I mean to observe the political process.
On Saturday, Britain’s new ambassador to the U.S., Sir Kim Darroch, was in town to witness the GOP primary — which, not to disappoint, boasted record turnout — and to meet with various state and national officials, including Sen. Lindsey Graham. Before becoming ambassador, Darroch was national security adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron.
Darroch also met with the state political party chairmen, Republican Matt Moore and Democrat Jaime Harrison. Over lunch, Moore and Darroch discussed trends of shared concern on both sides of the Atlantic — the rise of the far right, nationalism and the challenges of immigration, according to Moore. They also touched on how trade with South Carolina would be affected should Britain withdraw from the European Union.
This was the first time the ambassador had ventured out into America’s “hinterlands,” said Moore, and he was interested in seeing how our messy politics works. (Darroch didn’t respond to my kind invitation to chat, but Harrison conveyed that he wanted to keep his visit low-key.)
In addition to Darroch, Harrison met with representatives from South Korea, Australia and Norway. He also provided tickets to Britain’s consul general, Jeremy Pilmore-Bedford, to Tuesday night’s event with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
“South Carolina has become a hotbed,” he said as he raced between TV appearances and preparations for the CNN-sponsored town hall. “It’s where you want to be for the early primaries.”
Indeed, South Carolina has long been of particular interest to politicians, dignitaries and students from other countries, in part because of its role as first primary in the South but also because of its reputation for colorful politics. The University of South Carolina’s mascot — the fighting gamecock — may well be a metaphor for the blood sport that is both politics and theater, if more street than River Avon.
Political tourists have become almost as routine as bumper stickers and lawn signs. Katon Dawson, who served as state GOP chair from 2002-09, said he regularly hosted foreign dignitaries from Belgium, Taiwan, Australia and France, which also sent students as campaign workers and interns. Even so, most visitors come and go without fanfare. And some of those who visit during election season have more than a political interest in South Carolina. They have a history or other personal connection.
As state party leader, Dawson traveled twice to Taiwan, including once as a representative for then-President George W. Bush for the swearing-in of Taiwan’s new president. While there, he coincidentally met with two alumni from his own University of South Carolina. The first words out of Taiwan’s then-speaker of the house’s mouth were, “How is Lou Holtz?” referring to the former South Carolina football coach. On his finger was a ring just like Dawson’s, bearing the USC insignia. In another meeting, the then-mayor of Taichung, Jason Hu, wore the same ring.
Both men had been students through the university’s world-renowned international studies program, now called the Richard Walker Institute of International and Area Studies after the program’s creator. Walker, who died in 2003, also served as ambassador to South Korea under Ronald Reagan and is widely regarded for his artful diplomacy between East Asia and the U.S. — not to mention little ol’ South Carolina.
In yet another connection, the Nexsen Pruet law firm is home to a Swedish lawyer and, thus, hosted a delegation of about 15 Swedish embassy, consulate and elected officials for two days last week. Most interesting to the delegates, as recounted to me, was a meeting with state Democratic Rep. Russell Ott, who played a key role in the process leading up to removal of the Confederate battle flag from the State House grounds. Many of us share that fascination.
South Carolina, it seems, isn’t only first in the South but, based on thank-you notes to Dawson, is also first in the nation when it comes to other countries’ understanding of our political system.
While that thought sinks in, consider the bright side: Perhaps someday they can explain it to us.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.