Friends from S.C. remember senator

Sens. Fritz Hollings (left), D-S.C., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., hold a news conference in 1975 to talk about oil profits. On Wednesday, Hollings discussed his longtime friendship with Kennedy, who died of brain cancer at 77.

Henry Griffin

Ted Kennedy's final telephone call to former U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings came six weeks ago. His voice was strong, but deep down Hollings knew his old friend was saying goodbye.

"I could tell it was the last one," Hollings said Wednesday, hours after the news broke that his four-decade Democratic ally had succumbed to brain cancer.

The conversation wasn't stilted, awkward or even sad.

"He was thanking me for all the help I had given to him and his brothers and his family. He was the most thoughtful fellow. We talked like we'd never separated," said Hollings, 87, who retired from the Senate in 2004.

Kennedy's death ends a political friendship rooted in Washington, D.C., but was forced to play out every six years in South Carolina when Hollings sought re-election. On cue, and at almost every opportunity, Republicans tried to hang Kennedy, the northeastern liberal, around Hollings' neck.

Though the attacks seldom stuck, Hollings recalled one time when Kennedy tried to give him a $5,000 campaign contribution -- a donation he turned down because of the mud that would assuredly follow Hollings back home.

"It would have taken $500,000 to go on TV to explain it," said Hollings, whose closeness with Kennedy grew long after he'd already made friends with Ted's older brothers Jack and Bobby from his early days in Democratic politics in the 1950s and 1960s and as governor of South Carolina.

While Kennedy's direct ties to South Carolina were few, Democrats, and even some Republicans, remembered him fondly Wednesday for the fighter he was, whether it was for trying to reach for the presidency himself, pass a health care reform package or helping to put Barack Obama in the Oval Office.

"His body of work spans a near half-century but will live forever," said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C. "He was the protector of the least of these and the champion of equal rights, equal justice and equal opportunity for all Americans. Whether it's civil rights, education, public health or a livable minimum wage, his work has improved American lives in myriad ways."

Added Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, "a handshake from Senator Kennedy was all that was ever needed. His word was his bond," he said. "When the history of the United States Senate is written, his name will be toward the top of the list of senators who made a tremendous impact on the institution."

Even as Kennedy was often a target of conservatives in South Carolina, in reality he was far from being a fixture here. His most visible local political visit came nearly 30 years ago when he was running for president. It was November 1979 and Kennedy spoke at a King Street theater. Mayor Joe Riley drove Kennedy from the airport.

Riley said Wednesday that since then he has seen Kennedy often over the years, including at government or political gatherings. He also testified in front of his committees in Washington, speaking on behalf of Spoleto and mayoral issues tied to the National Endowment for the Arts.

Riley acknowledged Kennedy's public service but added that, one on one, he also was "a very personal and engaging person. He easily wore a smile on his face. It was genuine."

Hollings said Kennedy should be remembered as the public servant who could have said goodbye to politics years ago. Kennedy stayed in office not because he had to, Hollings said, but because he wanted to.

"He could have said 'bag it' at any time," Hollings said. "He could have walked away. But he stayed dedicated."