Last spring, Columbia’s State newspaper ran a major story about Charleston’s own Sen. Glenn McConnell and his favorite toy, the Confederate submarine Hunley.
The story, which ran over three days and covered 13 pages, described how McConnell used stealth and skullduggery to surreptitiously fund the preservation of the submarine and to build a museum to put it in — all at taxpayers’ expense, of course. The ultimate price tag would run upwards of $100 million.
The story was picked up on the AP wire and versions of it ran in newspapers all over the state — except in the Holy City, where the powers that be at the Post and Courier apparently felt it would be too much shock to our delicate sensibilities to learn the truth about McConnell and the Hunley.
I guess I don’t have as much sympathy for local feelings as those good folks who breathe the rarefied air at 134 Columbus St. That’s why I decided to go public in this column with details from The State’s exposé. Among other things, I revealed to local readers that McConnell — who is president pro tem of the Senate and arguably the most powerful politician in the state — had quietly arranged funding of the Hunley project though a quasi-public agency called Friends of the Hunley. As The State reported, much of the funding is “fragmented and tucked away in various agency budgets,” where no individual or agency has oversight.
Furthermore, McConnell has led the state on a reckless adventure to build a $42 million museum to house the submarine, yet his commission had done absolutely no feasibility, site, or market studies, which experts say are critical to knowing whether such a venture can succeed. McConnell’s commission chose North Charleston as the site for their Hunley museum, far from the tourist traffic and historic sites of Charleston and Mt. Pleasant, but suspiciously close to McConnell’s family-owned CSA Galleries, which bills itself as the nation’s largest Civil War store.
Perhaps The Post and Courier felt a little chagrined at being called out on this issue. And they were probably surprised that no City Paper readers died clutching their chests upon reading these shocking details. Whatever the reason, a short time after The State blew the whistle on McConnell and the Hunley, the P&C did their own version of the story — or more accurately, it was a format designed to let McConnell answer the charges The State had brought against him. But at least the P&C finally acknowledged that charges had been made and there was a lot of explaining to do.
It felt good to be treated like an adult by our daily newspaper, albeit a somewhat dim and feeble adult. Now it seems the P&C has reverted to its old attitude — that is, what we don’t know won’t hurt us.
The February issue of Reader’s Digest has a story about the kind of public boondoggles that Republicans love to call “waste, fraud, and abuse.” The three vignettes in the article included the Pentagon’s penchant of spending $20 for plastic ice trays and $22,797 for 34-inch refrigerators; the chief of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars spiffing up his office and who required the services of a $1 dollar a year personal security detail; and — you guessed it — Glenn McConnell and his submarine.
The Reader’s Digest report is based largely on The State’s story: “According to The State’s award-winning series on the Hunley, South Carolina taxpayers will eventually shell out a whopping $80 million …. The Post and Courier, a Charleston newspaper, also reported that ‘public money spent or currently committed to the submarine projects’ adds up to about $32 million. Unlike The State, though, The Post and Courier did not include proposed spending.”
Usually, when Charleston gets noticed in the national media — as it does each year as the nation’s most polite city, for example, or when a local man wins big on Wheel of Fortune, as Peter Buccellato did last week — the P&C is all over the story. But the venerable old paper has been mighty quiet about its mention in Reader’s Digest.
I’m not cynical enough to think that the owner and editors were trying to hide the part that suggested they had not told the whole story about McConnell and the price of the Hunley museum. No, they would never do that.
I just think that Pierre Manigault and his editors at the P&C believe that this brave old city — which has survived earthquakes, hurricanes, pirates, and sieges — will be stricken to learn that its favorite senator and pork barrel project were ridiculed in the national media.
Here’s my advice to Pierre & Co.: Don’t worry about our feelings. Just give us the news. We’re tough. We can take it. We’re Charleston!