In researching this week’s feature about Palmetto State Armory, we came across an old news item that we’d almost forgotten: Back in 2011, the South Carolina gun seller and manufacturer sold a limited-edition AR-15 rifle component with Republican Rep. Joe Wilson’s then-infamous quote “You Lie” etched in the side.
As politically themed merchandising goes, it was a bold move that earned a lot of backlash from the Left — particularly because Wilson’s statement had been shouted at the U.S. president. As we reminisced about the minor media kerfuffle that ensued, we couldn’t help but think of it as a weird sort of publicity gift to Wilson, whose reputation with his Republican base was hardly damaged by the news. So here’s a list of the top five most fascinating gifts to or from politicians in our fair state’s history:
5. Preston Brooks’ cane collection
In 1856, during the build-up to the American Civil War, U.S. Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina made headlines by walking into the Senate chamber, finding Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner at his desk, and beating him unconscious with a gold-tipped cane. Sumner had recently given a speech condemning one of Brooks’ relatives for proposing that slavery be extended into the Kansas territory, and Sumner declared the speech “a libel on South Carolina.” In the aftermath of the incident, as Sumner slowly recovered from his injuries, Brooks’ Southern admirers reportedly sent him dozens of canes to replace the one he had broken on Sumner’s body.
4. Joe Wilson’s “You Lie” gun component
Palmetto State Armory’s decision to brand an AR-15 lower component with “You Lie” was no coincidence — Rep. Wilson’s son, Julian Wilson, is a co-owner of the company. In announcing the sale of the gun, the company wrote that it intended “to honor our esteemed congressman Joe Wilson.” Still, the gun part was never approved by Rep. Wilson or his campaign, and when Palmetto State Armory took the item off its website, the congressman wrote a letter to the company thanking it for “quickly suspending sales of the product that uses my words.”
3. Robert Ford’s sex toys
Former Democratic State Sen. Robert Ford isn’t the only South Carolina politician in recent memory to be found guilty of misusing campaign funds — ousted Lt. Gov. Ken Ard and ex-House Speaker Bobby Harrell come to mind — but Ford’s purchases may have been the most blush-worthy ones on record. Among other things, he used campaign money to buy sex toys from adult stores that he said he used as gag gifts for supporters. In a July 2014 interview with ABC News 4, Ford defended his actions, saying: “That’s what I do with my money. And that’s why they put me on trial because they say, ‘This man is getting too popular.’ No. I’m a servant. You’re supposed to do that, let people know how much you appreciate them.”
2. Joe Riley’s baseball case
In the late ’90s, one of Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr.’s most visible projects was a state-of-the-art new stadium for the RiverDogs, then a struggling minor-league team with a long losing streak and a crumbling ballpark. RiverDogs President Mike Veeck, who had recently relocated to Charleston at the time, remembers going to meet the mayor in his office and spotting a baseball on his desk that had been autographed by Hank Aaron — a sure sign of a real baseball fan. Veeck noticed the ball didn’t have a protective case, so he sent the mayor a plastic case shortly afterward as a gift. “He sent me a check two days later for the 99 cents,” Veeck says.
1. Lindsey Graham’s hog castrator
The top spot goes to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, an undisputed master of the awkward gesture. To welcome newly elected Iowa Republican Joni Ernst to the Senate in January, he gave her a livestock castration device mounted on a plaque with the inscription “MAKE ‘EM SQUEAL, JONI!” The gift didn’t come completely out of left field. Ernst’s parents are in fact pig farmers, and one of her campaign commercials featured the slogan “Washington is full of big spenders. Let’s make ’em squeal.” Political reporters predictably had a field day blogging about the gift. “It remains to be seen whether her new gift will remain fixed on a wall or come in handy on the Senate floor,” snarked Bloomberg Politics writer David Knowles.
Gift for Sen. Ernst from @GrahamBlog – livestock castration device. pic.twitter.com/tCbdInXzHn
— Joseph Morton (@MortonOWH) January 6, 2015
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City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.