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Mark Shields: Fritz Hollings, an Authentic South Carolina Giant

He was a rare candidate who dared to tell voters the truth as he saw it

One of the real pluses of the South Carolina primary was the chance to tap into the fresh wisdom of an authentic American giant — the 90-years-young Fritz Hollings.

A vintage sample from an earlier speech: “Having been governor, I am frequently asked the difference of being a governor and senator. As governor, if you want to raise revenue, you raise taxes. As senator, if you want to raise revenue, you cut taxes. In Washington, you become smart. You become an economist and learn to stimulate the economy by cutting taxes. And promising not to raise taxes will guarantee your re-election.”

That’s the kind of candor absent from our 2012 presidential campaign, drowning in self-righteousness, and typical of the politically incorrect candor Hollings as South Carolina governor and U.S. senator for 38 years dispensed so generously.

In the 1986 Senate campaign, when Hollings’ Republican opponent, a crime-busting prosecutor known for convicting marijuana vendors, challenged the Democrat to take a drug test, Hollings won the exchange by responding, “I’ll take a drug test if you take an IQ test.”

But Hollings was always a lot more than the master of one-liners. In 1963, when Mississippi and Alabama, governed respectively by Ross Barnett and George Wallace, were combat zones of bayonets and brutality in the bloody struggle for civil rights, South Carolina was led by a different kind of man. To his state and its Legislature, Gov. Hollings demanded — and got — peaceable change:

“This general assembly must make clear South Carolina’s choice, a government of laws rather than a government of men. ... We of today must 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.”

Personally, I admire Hollings for the failed campaign he ran for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination. Hollings was that rarest candidate who dared to tell voters the unvarnished truth as he saw it. No panderer he, candidate Hollings went before the New Hampshire primary to that state’s Ivy League school, Dartmouth College, where he told his privileged student audience: “I want to draft everyone in this room for the good of the country.” The crowd was silent. Not, he explained, the “old Vietnam-style draft, where if you had enough money, you were either in college or Canada.” Why? “Conscience tells us that we need a cross-section of Americans in our armed forces. Defense is everybody’s business ... everybody’s responsibility.”

Hollings dared to call for common sacrifice for the common good. To a national convention of senior citizens — a group used to being toadied to by candidates — Hollings, a committed deficit hawk, spoke not of what was owed to them, but instead of the seniors’ obligation “to your children and grandchildren.” Then he vowed the politically unspeakable. “If I’m elected, I will freeze your cost-of-living adjustments for a year.”

On Capitol Hill, Hollings, a decorated combat veteran of World War II, told a meeting of defense contractors who were prospering from President Ronald Reagan’s doubling of the Pentagon budget: “If I’m elected, I will freeze the defense budget at 3 percent real growth and do away with the MX (missile) and the B-1 (bomber).” When he lost that race, he cracked: “Thomas Wolfe was wrong — ‘You can go home again.’ I know. That’s what the people of New Hampshire told me to do.”

Today, just as engaged and as passionate as ever, Hollings writes a regular column for The Huffington Post, where he condemns the excessive influence of money in politics as well as the financial, business and establishment interests, often by name, that sacrifice American jobs and families on the altar of a quick buck. In Washington, his absence continues to leave a lonely place against the sky.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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