FOLLY BEACH, SC
Thanks for 10 years of grabbing the City Paper as you headed into your favorite restaurant or stumbled out of your favorite bar.
Thanks for flipping inside to see what that loudmouth Graham has to say this week — despite having thrown down the paper the week before and muttering "Where did the City Paper find this idiot?"
Thanks for the e-mails, thousands of them over the years, accusing me of bias, bigotry, willful ignorance, incomprehensible stupidity, and at least two forms of illegal animal husbandry. (Actually, I think those were more like suggestions). Among my favorite e-mails received while writing this column was the one that read, in its entirety: "Die, you vile scum!"
Not a single wasted word.
And now we're down to the last words, at least for me. After 15 years, this is the last roundup of the Usual Suspects. And it's all your fault.
To understand the end, you must start with the beginning. When I wrote my first column in 1992, the state of South Carolina was a humor writer's heaven on earth. Nearly every day, some Palmetto State pinhead was proving the truth of James Pettigru's observation in 1863 that South Carolina is "too small for a republic, but too large for an insane asylum."
The legislature was an openly-corrupt collection of clowns, as evidenced by Operation Lost Trust. Our congressional delegation had until recently included John Jenrette, a Pee Dee congressman famous for doing to cash-carrying lobbyists what he did to his wife on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
When I began the Usual Suspects, getting a tattoo in South Carolina was a crime. Minibottles were mandatory. State legislators like John Graham Apartheid III were still voting against legalizing mixed-race marriages, and the Confederate Flag flew atop a statehouse whose members represented (theoretically, anyway) nearly one million citizens descended from slaves.
In the South Carolina of 15 years ago, our state's chief accountant was a guy named Earle, our junior senator was 70 years old, and the toughest man in South Carolina politics was named Carroll.
And I haven't even mentioned Strom Thurmond.
Anyone who couldn't find something at least faintly amusing to say about the state of South Carolina's politics and culture in 1992 either had absolutely no sense of humor, or wrote editorials for the Post and Courier.
But our state has changed dramatically in the past 15 years, in ways I couldn't possibly imagine. Take national politics. Back in 1992, President George Bush had invaded Iraq with sky-high poll numbers, but his popularity plunged soon after, and a liberal named Clinton waited in the wings to take the White House.
OK, maybe that's a bad example...
My point is, this isn't the same South Carolina that you, the voters, citizens, and readers, promised me in 1992. Sure, we've had a Commissioner of Agriculture snared in a cock-fighting investigation (he was given away by the tell-tale limp). And having a state treasurer who's both a conservative Republican and doing blow with his buddies livens up the local GOP precinct meetings.
But compared to the glory days, this is a thin, comedy gruel. Gov. Mark Sanford — state house-soiling swine aside — is a credible political thinker. Agree or disagree with his politics, celebrate or castigate his leadership style. But a governor elected by South Carolina evangelicals who also gives speeches at the libertarian CATO institute? How amazing is that?
And if you're unimpressed, I offer two simple words: David Beasley.
David Beasley allowed video poker to flourish, but opposed the lottery. Until he was losing and desperate, then he loved the lottery. David Beasley had nothing but support for the Confederate Flag, until God came to him like a vision in the night. "You know, people still don't realize just how politically clueless you are," spoketh the Lord. "Go show 'em, Dave!"
At least we think it was God. Maybe it was Dick Harpootlian.
Then there was Lil' Jim Hodges, who was to the S.C. governor's mansion what George Lazenby was to the James Bond franchise; Boykin Rose, who proved that just because you're paranoid doesn't mean there aren't SLED agents stealing files from your office; and Sen. Maggie Glover, cowering on the floorboard of her car in the middle of the night, state troopers tapping politely on her window, as she waited for another member of the legislative black caucus to whisk her away from the scene of her crimes.
It was the same in Washington. We had William Jefferson "O.J." Clinton, the guy that everyone knew was guilty, but nobody cared. In South Carolina we had Sen. Strom Thurmond, who everybody knew had died during the Reagan presidency and nobody cared, either.
Sanford, DeMint, Clyburn, even Sen. Lindsay Grahamnesty — they all have their foibles, but compared to the rest of the clowns in the Cirque Du D.C., they're a side show. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid trying to explain the Left's Iraq policy is pure comedy gold. Sen. Robert Byrd on a slow day is worth a week of the entire S.C. congressional delegation combined.
For so long, I lived by the motto, "South Carolina: Our Headlines Are America's Punchlines." And I never missed a deadline.
Then one night during the 2000 Florida recount fight, I flipped on CNN and saw a mob of angry, elderly voters complaining, "That ballot was too dang confusing! I was ripped off! I spent 15 minutes lookin' at that fool thing and couldn't find 'Dewey' or 'Truman' anywhere!"
Hey, wait a minute. Why isn't that guy in South Carolina?
It started happening more and more. We were getting rid of minibottles, while places in New York and Massachusetts were banning trans fat. We took down the Confederate Flag, while northern liberals were lobbying for segregated, blacks-only, public schools. We rolled back the laws against tattoos, while Montgomery County, Md., tried to ban smoking in private homes.
South Carolina had gone from America's political freak show to part of the mundane mainstream. How mainstream?
If the S.C. GOP presidential primary were held today, the winner would be a New York Yankee named Giuliani.
It's easy to dismiss Rudy Giuliani's early polling success as irrelevant. He's nowhere close to 50 percent, he's benefiting from 9/11, the rest of the field is weak, etc., etc.
Thinking this way is burying the headline, because in the glory days of the Usual Suspects there are no circumstances under which Rudy Giuliani could be the frontrunner in a South Carolina. Good grief, we're the same Republicans who ended John McCain's campaign for not being conservative enough. In 2000, Rudy would have been too liberal to win the South Carolina Democratic primary.
My conclusion isn't that South Carolina has become more liberal, nor have we become just another spot on America's homogenous map.
It still has its own delicious, local flavor (hallelujah!), found in Peninsula restaurants and cinder block weekend BBQ huts. It's still the only state that could be the home of a contradiction like Charleston, where Sunday morning finger-wagging and Saturday night bourbon sipping can roll together like the Ashley and Cooper to create a delightfully livable place.
South Carolina has not become like Charlotte or Minneapolis or those other forgettable, flavorless "Mall With A Mayor" communities across America.
But we have, I believe, thrown off some of the cultural baggage that has held us back. We've lost some of that proud anti-rationalism that influenced the public perception of South Carolina as a place were stupid people go to prosper. The days of statehouse members riding around in pick-up trucks with bumper stickers reading "If You Can Read This, Get The Hell Outta My State, Yankee!" are coming to an end.
And so, therefore, is this column.
I can't conclude without thanking the long-suffering Stephanie Barna, editor and chief animal tamer of the Charleston City Paper. She's run columns of mine that I know she hated, she's rolled her eyes at jokes she found juvenile and let them go. But she has always let my columns stand for your approval largely as I've offered them — or improved by her capable editing.
I must also mention the publisher, Noel Mermer and the City Paper's advertisers. During the controversy over my column and comments regarding the tragic state of Islam — the same comments ABC/Disney fired me over — the business side of the City Paper never batted an eye. They may have thought I was an idiot, but they saw no value in letting other, free-speech-suppressing idiots shut me up. If only the New York Times had such courage.
And finally, there is The Warden. My lovely bride became "The Warden" after being accosted by a reader who recognized her from an appearance in one of my columns, demanded she help arrange my immediate and public hanging. In fact, my wife would likely take some pleasure in seeing me swing, but she didn't enjoy being harangued by total strangers who had come to the same conclusion.
This nom de plume allowed me to continue to write about the most important person in my life, indeed the most remarkable person I've ever known.
If I have done any writing worth remembering, it was in those columns dealing with the life I enjoy thanks to The Warden. Our marriage, our children, our experience of being attacked by cows (an early column and still a favorite) — these were the stories that worked because they were, for me, the stories that mattered most.
Her name, by the way, is Jennifer.
I've spent 15 years writing about the foolishness and ineptitude of the public figures who lord over us. But if I've learned anything from the Usual Suspects, it's how little those people really matter. Presidents, governors, senators, so what? The people who help me raise my children and make my neighborhood safe, who see when I'm having a horrible day and say that one, funny thing to keep me sane; the children who are determined to drive me crazy anyway, and the wonderful wife who won't let it happen — at least, not yet. These are the people who matter. These are the people who make my life.
They're doing the same for you every day. If you're lucky.
Me? I'm the luckiest guy in the whole, wide, amazing world.
And I want to thank you for that, too.
Michael Graham is performing stand-up comedy in a special one-man show at Theatre 99 in Charleston on Thursday, Aug. 23 at 8 p.m. For ticket information call 853-6687.