What is it about South Carolina, anyway? Why does the state with the sultry climate and the swaying palmettos continue to produce so many noteworthy reactionaries - congressman Joe Wilson (R-You Lie) being merely the latest? How come we can trace this tradition all the way back to John C. Calhoun who, while seeking in 1833 to protect his state's slave economy from Washington "despotism," threatened on the Senate floor to foment civil war and spill the blood of South Carolina's "brave sons"?
But first, some kind words about South Carolina. I have visited there on numerous political trips, and found people to be sweetly hospitable. You can go to a bar at twilight in early March and still catch a balmy breeze, blown your way by ceiling fans. The locals spin yarns with an affable drawl, they love politics almost as much as college football, and especially in the "low country" near the coast, they spend a lot of time talking about where to find the best stone crabs.
Nevertheless, there is, shall we say, a distinctive cultural attitude that inspires many folks to fly the Confederate stars and bars, to refer to the mayhem of Confederate years as "the war for southern independence," and I well remember, during a '90s visit, reading a weekly suburban newspaper that referred to a black political hopeful as a "dark hoss, no pun intended."
Speaking of race, it's fascinating how that theme has appeared to animate so many of South Carolina's vocal notables - so many of whom have been historic figures, though not always for the best.
Senator Calhoun's big argument nearly 170 years ago was that states should be allowed to resist federal laws whenever they wanted, that states could in fact secede or rejoin the union whenever they wanted (faint echoes have been heard lately from Texas Gov. Ricky Perry and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty). Back around 1833, South Carolina had arguably the most lucrative slave-based economy in the South (rice and cotton), and it feared that the feds would mess up a good thing by enacting onerous trade laws. So Calhoun raised hell about this on the Senate floor.
Actually, when Calhoun did that, he was already upholding a proud South Carolina tradition. Way back in 1776, the first draft of the Declaration of Independence had contained a passage condemning Britain for bringing the African slave trade to America, but it was excised in order to quell vociferous protests...the South Carolinians. Then, in 1787, the Constitutional Convention was weighing an immediate permanent ban on the African slave trade, but the plan was scrapped in order to quell secessionist talk from...the South Carolinians. They were cajoled to join the union only after it was agreed that the ban wouldn't happen until 1807.
Anyway, Calhoun darkly warned that if the Democrats in Washington tried to enforce federal trade laws that might undercut the fruits of slave labor, "it will be resisted at every hazard - even that of death itself." If Washington "is resolved to bring this question to extremity," then South Carolina's "gallant sons will stand prepared to perform the last duty - to die nobly." Long story short, President Andrew Jackson won the standoff; one of his top allies, clearly relieved, wrote that the crisis had been averted, and that now, "things are quiet for awhile."
But only for a while. Two decades later, an anti-slavery senator from Massachusetts was nearly beaten to death on the Senate floor by a colleague wielding a cane. The assailant was Preston Brooks, from...surprise...South Carolina. Brooks became the Joe Wilson of his day. South Carolinians were so thrilled with his behavior that they showered him with gifts, especially new canes. And what state was the first to fire on Union soldiers and start the civil war? South Carolina. What state was the first to secede? South Carolina.
Teaching those Washington folks a thing or two about race was clearly becoming a South Carolina tradition. When the northern Democrats began their push for civil rights in 1948, it naturally was South Carolina that supplied the candidate for the segregationist Dixiecrat presidential ticket. As Strom Thurmond put it on the campaign trail, "I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there's not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches"). And after Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 civil rights act, it was South Carolina's Thurmond who led the southern conservatives' white flight out of the Democratic party and over to the GOP.
Within a decade, the torch had been passed to a Thurmond protege named Lee Atwater. Is it mere coincidence that the dark art of rough-and-tumble racial politics was refined for the modern era by yet another South Carolinian. Atwater, a young intern who rose rapidly to become Thurmond's campaign strategist, later achieved infamy for his contributions to George H. W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign; he's the guy who came up with idea of scaring white folks away from Michael Dukakis by linking the Democratic candidate to a black rapist. But in 1980, fresh from his Thurmond sponsorship, he made his mark in South Carolina by launching a successful whispering campaign against a Democratic congressional candidate, telling voters via anonymous phone calls that the white candidate was actually a member of the NAACP.
Fast forward to the present. Among all the nation's Republican governors, guess which one led the charge against President Obama on the economic stimulus plan, by rejecting $700 million in new federal bucks until the state's highest court made him take it. Yep, it was the South Carolinian, Mark Sanford. That act of defiance by the love guv seems downright benign when compared to the race-card maneuvers of people like Thurmond and Atwater...until one realizes that Sanford was trying to spurn money that was heavily earmarked for the public schools of predominantly black kids.
And guess which Republican senator uttered out loud what most of his party brethren prefer to keep private, the idea that defeating President Obama on health care will seriously damage him politically and boost GOP prospects in the next election. Yep, again it was a South Carolinian - this time, Jim DeMint - who told conservatives in a conference call that a health care defeat would be Obama's "Waterloo."
Dare we suggest, however delicately, that Joe Wilson's intemperate outburst stemmed in part from the notion that Obama does not look quite like the kind of president that conservative South Carolinians, especially given their history, clearly prefer? Dare we note that Wilson, a former Thurmond aide, has been a member of the pro-secessionist Sons of Confederate Veterans, and that, back when he was a state legislator, he voted to keep the Dixie rebel flag flying on the state capital grounds?
Such is the rich South Carolina history that intrudes upon the present, putting the Wilson incident in context. As Shakespeare once wrote in The Tempest:
"What's past is prologue."
On the eighth anniversary of 9/11, we remembered the day when terrorists killed 3000 Americans. But just imagine how this country would react if terrorists were killing 18,000 Americans every single year. Correct, we would be going berserk.
And yet, according to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, that many Americans die prematurely every year - simply because they don't have health insurance. Does anything about that strike you as unjust? Perhaps that's one reason why the average U.S. life span is roughly on a par with the average life span in Slovenia.
Just read this column, and see what happened to Nikki White after the health insurance industry turned its back on her. Clearly, all the demagoguery about government "death panels" is off the mark; truth is, the private sector already has them.