If there ever were someone who understands how something said by a politician was “just a joke,” you’re reading a column by him.

You see, I once worked as the press secretary for former U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, an outstanding South Carolinian known far and wide for a great wit, biting and otherwise.

Hollings’ aphorisms, fueled by a rich, Gullah-infused Lowcountry brogue, are legendary around Capitol Hill. Not only did people want to hear him talk just about any time, but they listened to the words he used. He’d highlight some government nonsense by noting “that sounds like the fireplug wetting the dog.” He blasted FEMA as “a bunch of bureaucratic jackasses.” Or he’d say someone was “full of prunes.” He would even turn the table on himself at campaign events, often comparing his mane of white hair to a Q-tip.

In 1992, Hollings got the attention of Japan after its parliament speaker criticized the productivity of American workers. At a Hartsville roller-bearing plant, Hollings told about 90 workers, “I’ll take my editorial cartoon pen and draw a mushroom cloud and put under it ‘Made in America by lazy and illiterate Americans and tested in Japan.'” He later defended the joke as standing up against America-bashing.

So when some Democrats recently squawked about how Gov. Henry McMaster compared them to dogs, the whole political joke explanation wasn’t that unexpected.

“Our Democratic friends are a lot like dogs,” McMaster said Aug. 27 to a crowd of more than 1,000 at an Anderson barbecue. “One on one, they’re really nice, but in a pack they’re dangerous.”

The crowd laughed, which is something they’ve reportedly been doing for years when McMaster delivered the same line.

“It was a joke,” said Trey Walker, McMaster’s chief of staff. “Nothing more or less. It’s been done for 15 years, over and over again. It’s a joke. It’s funny. It gets a laugh every time he does it. Humor plays a very large role in politics, especially in political rallies and stump events.”

And McMaster should know, since he was the target of one of Hollings’ most famous quips, as Walker remembered:

“Henry McMaster has been the butt of one of the best jokes in politics in a debate in 1986 when then-candidate McMaster challenged Senator Hollings to take a drug test and when Hollings replied he’d be happy to do so whenever Henry would take an IQ test.”

So, yeah, let’s accept that the Anderson dog comment was a joke. Democrats need to lighten up.

But that’s not to let McMaster off the hook completely because the political atmosphere in America is different from what it was 15 or 20 years ago, particularly when a sitting president routinely dehumanizes enemies by insulting them as dogs.

Donald Trump’s reality-show television protégé, former White House staffer Omarosa Manigault-Newman, broke up the dull political days of a hot August with a new tell-all book full of gossip about turmoil and drama in the White House.

Trump, the incessant tweeter who gives but can’t take criticism, responded by calling her a “crazed, crying lowlife” and praised his chief of staff for “quickly firing that dog.” And that got under a lot of people’s skin, particularly since Manigault-Newman, who is black, was the highest-ranking African American to serve in Trump’s White House.

“Mr. President, it is beneath you and the office of the presidency to call any woman a dog,” tweeted a frequent Trump critic, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), “It is degrading and demeaning, and I pray that you will stop this vulgar behavior. Our country is better than this.”

So just as Democrats need to lighten up about the governor’s comment, maybe the governor needs to rethink telling a joke about dogs in light of the current political environment when the word “dog” has a different connotation and reference point this summer than it did last.

Yes, humor is a great way in politics to connect to voters. Let’s just make sure it isn’t sour.

Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Statehouse Report.


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