I recently returned from a week’s vacation — my first in four years — in the mountains of Virginia. The weather was beautiful and generally 10 to 15 degrees cooler than in the Lowcountry. I saw lightening bugs for the first time in years. And it seemed like everyone I met wanted to know what the hell is going on in South Carolina.
South Carolinians have always thought of themselves as an exceptional people with an exceptional way of interpreting the world. We are part museum and part freak show — the place where the Union was torn asunder and the Civil War began, and the home of Strom Thurmond, the centenarian senator with the longest filibuster on record and the secret black daughter.
Ten years ago, we were fighting our great battle over the Confederate flag. Nearly every columnist and cartoonist in the country weighed in on the matter. Garry Trudeau devoted two weeks of Doonesbury to the debate. The networks and cable channels sent reporters to cover the story, as did The New York Times and The Washington Post. The Palmetto State had not been the center of so much attention in 140 years.
When I traveled in those days, I hesitated to identify where I was from. And when I did proclaim that South Carolina was my home, it felt like I was holding a press conference as people sought the latest developments in the flag imbroglio and my opinion on the matter.
The flag issue has been largely put to rest, but we are suddenly famous all over again. It started last year when our governor went AWOL from his official duties, telling his staff that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. As the whole world knows by now, Mark Sanford was in a love nest in Argentina. The late-night comics had a field day, and “Appalachian Trail” entered the vernacular as a euphemism for sneaky misbehavior.
Before divorcing him, Sanford’s aggrieved wife Jenny wrote a nasty little book about her 20-year marriage to the philanderer, portraying him as a selfish, emotionally shallow tight-wad. She made the talk show circuit and the best-seller list, and America had a whole new reason to talk about South Carolina.
Then there was the matter of Republican politico Rusty DePass comparing Michelle Obama’s relatives to a gorilla in a widely distributed e-mail. There was the inevitable uproar and apology, but South Carolina received another black eye.
Next, Sen. Jim DeMint made himself the spokesman for the moon dogs of the Republican Party and declared that the healthcare debate would be President Obama’s “Waterloo.” Lt. Gov. André Bauer made himself famous for 15 minutes by comparing poor people to stray animals. Republican state Sen. Jake Knotts tried to outdo him by calling President Obama and gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley “ragheads.”
And, of course, there was Haley herself. A first-generation Indian-American, she knocked off three male GOPers in the June primary and runoff after receiving a flamboyant endorsement from Sarah Palin on the Statehouse steps. But in the days before Primary Day, two men came out of the woodwork to say — without evidence — that they had had affairs with her. Voters were uninfluenced by the allegations, but the nation got another glimpse of the way we play politics in South Carolina.
And then there was Alvin Greene, the strangest creature to come out of the Pee Dee since the Lizard Man. We still haven’t figured out who he is or how he defeated Vic Rawl for the Democratic Senate nomination without campaigning or fundraising. Greene will never sit in the U.S. Senate, but like the Lizard Man, he is destined to become part of South Carolina folklore.
State Sen. Anton Gunn told Politico, “If you want to hear something crazy, if you want to see something stupid, come to South Carolina.” Things have gotten so bizarre here that Jon Stewart devoted a whole segment of The Daily Show to South Carolina and declared us America’s whoopee cushion.
So is it any wonder the good people in Virginia looked at me and asked what the hell is going on in South Carolina?
I wanted to tell them to just look up my City Paper columns. I have been trying to explain this state to myself and to you, gentle readers, for the last eight years. It’s not that our politics are especially corrupt. Compared to New Jersey or Louisiana, we look like choir boys. But South Carolina’s politics are driven by anger and fear in a manner that makes it both destructive to social comity and irrelevant to the actual business of governing.
That’s what I wanted to say. But in the end I just told them to leave me alone. I wanted to watch the lightening bugs.
See Will Moredock’s blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.