"Performance is better than promise."
—Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings
With his silver hair and sly grin, Ernest "Fritz" Hollings is what his fellow Charlestonians like to call "a real character." Known and celebrated by many in his home state and in Washington for his feisty, matter-of-fact approach, dry humor, and rich Lowcountry brogue, Hollings really is a character. But the amusing aspects of his personality hardly affirm his four decades of public service.
The former S.C. governor and U.S. senator spent the last few weeks making appearances around the state, signing copies of his newly published political memoir Making Government Work, and speaking with reporters, animated as ever.
Reading through his new, 360-page book (it helps to read each chapter in Hollings' distinctive speaking voice, by the way), it's clear that the longtime statesman had a vision. He was intent on transforming S.C.'s economy and guiding it through the difficult issues of civil rights, poverty, racial injustice, environmental conservation, energy consumption, and fiscal responsibility
Written with Kirk Victor, a native of Savannah and a reporter for the National Journal, Making Government Work is a fascinating collection of adventures, struggles, and lessons learned.
Hollings, now 86, won his first campaign at the age of 26 for a seat in the state House of Representatives. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1954 and governor in 1958, serving from 1959 to 1963. In 1966, he started his career in the U.S. Senate and served through 2005. He was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States in 1984.
The Senator sets the tone in his prologue, announcing that this book is not the standard autobiography: "My aim is to draw on 52 years in public service to show how government once worked at the state and federal levels, but today is a standoff."
In an early chapter, Hollings offers a disturbing glimpse into post-War segregation — and the precarious balancing act of most Southern politicians during the Truman and Eisenhower years. Although Hollings came up within the South Carolina political machine in both legislative and executive positions, he gradually stepped away from the uglier side of their traditions, stood up to the racist elements, and became an agent of change, if a smart player of the game. Citing how it "threw precedent overboard and invaded states' control over education," he opposed the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954, which paved the way for integration and the civil rights movement. "Of course, no politician in South Carolina or anywhere else in the South could survive without criticizing Brown," he says.
In the executive branch of the state in the late 1950s and early '60s (and through some rough statewide campaigns), Hollings took aim at issues much broader and deeper than the states-versus-feds battle in which so many of his colleagues were embroiled. "In the 1950s it was hard for anybody with a breath in his body not to recognize the combustibility in day-to-day life in South Carolina, given the growing racial tensions," he writes. "But there was a way forward, past all this hostility. It wouldn't be easy. And it took years. Almost a decade later, I had to tell South Carolinians that it was time to accept change."
As governor, his support for John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential race put him at odds with many of his white segregationist (and non-Catholic) constituents, but it also enhanced his position as an open-minded, independent statesman.
Making Government Work amiably meanders through Hollings' experiences in the Senate — amusing and tough — during the "imperial Nixon years," misadventures in Vietnam, the "cautious" Ford years, the "time of big battles" during the Carter administration. He illustrates the dynamic between the parties — and the philosophical changes and squabbles within the Democratic party leading into and through the Reagan era.
"We (Democrats) had fiddle-faddled and been complacent when we should have been aggressive," Hollings writes of the 1980 elections. "We allowed Reagan to strike a chord with voters by running against Washington." Hollings repeatedly criticizes Republican leadership who, on one hand, rail against "big government" and taxes, while, on the other hand, neglect fiscal responsibilities, engage in misguided trade policies, and add to the rising deficit.
By his last term, Hollings says the Senate had changed for the worse. He missed the genuine camaraderie, mutual respect, and civil interaction between congressmen, and he became sick of the relentless fund-raising and campaigning.
In the final chapters he describes a "government off course ... that's in the ditch." Despite the negative assessments — especially on the George W. Bush years, with the "reckless policies that divide the country" — Hollings offers a hopeful and optimistic vision of the next era. He maintains a deep commitment to improving the system of government — a firm position that contrasts the roar of right-wing rhetoric and the timidity of the left.
"The country is in serious trouble, and we don't have the luxury of antigovernment politicking," he writes in his concluding pages. "It is our duty to make the government work."
For more on Hollings and his new book, check out www.sc.edu/uscpress