There is an apocryphal story about the dirty politician — by some accounts he's in New York, by others, it's Ohio — who holds public office for many years and upon retirement is honored with having the new courthouse named in his honor. A short time later a grand jury indicts him on a raft of public corruption charges, and he is tried and convicted in the courthouse which bears his name.
Is it true? I've heard it several times, but I cannot prove it. Yet, like most such stories, it makes a point. As long as he is alive — and perhaps for some time thereafter — a person has the opportunity to make a fool of himself. Officials should not make fools of themselves by naming public facilities for living people. It's an invitation to embarrassment.
A few weeks ago I wrote a column about Arthur Ravenel, perennial politician, former congressman, 81-year-old member of the Charleston County School Board. In the 1990s, then-Congressman Ravenel secured the federal funding to build the magnificent bridge which now spans the Cooper River between Charleston and Mt. Pleasant. In a gesture of appreciation to the congressman, local officials gave the new bridge his name.
That bridge is so ethereal, arching like a gleaming silver rainbow across the water, carrying its travelers under its heaven-bent spires, depositing them gently on the far side, having just granted a brief, exquisite view of the harbor, the city, the sky, perhaps even the world. It's a contrast to the life and career of Arthur Ravenel, who spent his life in the political sewers of South Carolina, denouncing civil rights and women's rights. As recently as 1999, he referred to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as the National Association of Retarded People.
In truth, this beautiful old city is laden with monuments, plaques, and tributes to ancient racists and slaveholders. More than a century and a half after his death, John C. Calhoun, defender of slavery and apostle of states' rights, still lords it over the city from his 40-foot pedestal in Marion Square.
But Arthur Ravenel? He's a symbol of everything Charleston and South Carolina are trying to put in their past. Worse than that, he is still making a fool of himself in the 21st century.
As all sentient Charlestonians will recall, Ravenel entered the Charleston County School District offices last spring, demanding to see Superintendent Nancy McGinley over a school board agenda issue. In that now infamous confrontation with a district employee, he reportedly declared that he had gotten rid of one "bitch" and he would get rid of another. He was referring to McGinley and to former Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson.
Asked about the incident by a Post and Courier reporter, he at first denied the remark altogether; the next day he sorta, kinda confessed, saying he had used the b-word, but could not remember the context.
Ravenel has made no apology for his behavior. I suspect that he considers it beneath himself to bother, just as it was beneath the well-bred Charlestonian to treat these two professional women as equals. (And, by the way, he did not "get rid of" Goodloe-Johnson. She took a job as head of the Seattle public school system.)
I closed my June 18 column with the suggestion that it is time to remove Arthur's name from our bridge. He is simply not worthy of such an honor, whether you measure that worth by the first 50 years of his career, or by his most recent, inexcusable outburst.
Whether Ravenel reads the City Paper or not, his friends might. Several folks wrote in to chastise me and attest to his sterling character and steadfastness on behalf of family and southern values. "I have always felt so fortunate to know a man like Arthur Ravenel, a true gentleman!" one wrote.
I have no doubt that when Cousin Arthur is standing on some South Battery veranda with a julep in hand and the harbor breeze blowing through his hair, he is the soul of gentility and charm. And why not? He is among peers. He would never call these people or their wives bitches. But the rest of us are fair game for his patrician arrogance. He can treat us like, well, like his employees. That's what he did with McGinley and Goodloe-Johnson.
I say again it is time for a change. Let's find a new name for our bridge. To start the process, we must notify our county legislative delegation about our concerns and suggest a new name. Of course, it's a long shot, but if we don't do something, we will have the Arthur Ravenel Bridge lording over us for the rest of our lives.