I wish that I had come upon Philip Grose's new book earlier. As soon as I read Looking for Utopia: The Life and Times of John C. West, I knew I was going to write about it and that I wanted to talk to the author.
Alas, that is one interview that will never take place. At the S.C. Book Festival in May, I learned that Grose died in March. In retrospect, I wish that I had rearranged my schedule a bit. I wish that the governor and the General Assembly had not been engaged in such misbehavior and misgovernment. I wish that the lieutenant governor had not resigned. I wish the world had not distracted me from getting to know one of the smartest observers and participants in state politics of his generation.
Grose served in the administrations of two South Carolina governors, John C. West and Robert McNair, during the 1960s and '70s. His earlier book, South Carolina on the Brink, was his account of the McNair years as the Palmetto State navigated its way through the racial strife and desegregation of the 1960s. With Looking for Utopia, Grose continues to chronicle that transitional moment in our state's history.
West was born on a Kershaw County farm in 1922 and was less than a year old when his father died in a horrendous fire along with more than 70 others. His mother was left to raise John and his 4-year-old brother in a collapsing cotton economy, with the Great Depression just over the horizon.
Such experiences leave some people angry and cynical. Others look at the suffering around them and find compassion and a common cause. West was among the latter.
He worked his way through The Citadel and served in the Army during World War II. He took his law degree from the University of South Carolina and moved back home to Camden, where he got elected to the state Senate in 1954. Twelve years later, he was elected lieutenant governor, then moved into the Governor's Mansion after the 1970 election.
Until that time, there had been few remarkable achievements in his career. He was even on record in support of racial segregation, a position any politician in the state in that period was obliged to take. But it was as governor that he began to make his mark, in part because of who he was, but also because the times were changing. What Grose makes clear is that West was the right man for the changing times.
The worst of the desegregation battles were over by 1970 and the South began electing a new and moderate generation of leaders: Jimmy Carter in Georgia, Rueben Askew in Florida, Dale Bumpers in Arkansas, and West in South Carolina. In his 1971 inaugural address, West made a series of bold — some would say utopian — pledges to eliminate hunger and malnutrition, provide adequate housing, and assure necessary healthcare to all South Carolinians. West said, "We can and we shall, in the next four years, eliminate from our government any vestige of discrimination because of race, creed, sex, religion, or any other barrier to fairness for all citizens."
West put more women into positions of power in his administration than any previous governor, inspired by the memory of his widowed mother, whose intelligence and tough-mindedness kept her family together in the worst of times.
As a youth, West worked with black people on his family farm. Later, he was harassed and threatened by racist vigilantes. He came to know black political activists, and when he was elected governor, he put a lifetime of experience and instinct to work in creating the State Human Affairs Commission. At the end of his political career, he went on to serve four distinguished years as ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Carter administration. He died of cancer in 2003.
Throughout his long years of service and travel, West never lost the human touch, never forgot a friend, and never forgot where he came from. "Whenever I ran into him, he remembered my name, extended his hand, always had a kind word," Judge Thomas Hughston, who worked on West's 1970 gubernatorial campaign, told me. "He just liked people. He wanted to see the best in people."
We can honor John C. West and Philip Grose by remembering that there was a time, not so long ago, when serious people believed that government existed to solve problems, to assist the poor and the powerless and to make our society safer and better for all.
Will Moredock is a South Carolina native with degrees from the University of Georgia and the University of South Carolina. He is an award-winning journalist and short-story writer and author of Banana Republic: A Year in the Heart of Myrtle Beach.