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The Nitty-Gritty Senator

After 38 Years, Fritz Hollings Is Leaving Congress. As Usual, He's Not Going Quietly.

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 14, 2004; Page C01

Sen. Fritz Hollings, the 82-year-old South Carolina Democrat, is sitting on his office sofa, telling stories in his inimitable style, which is funny and caustic. Suddenly, his eyes close and his chin drops to his chest. He looks like a man who's about to drool on his impeccable blue-and-white pinstripe shirt.

But he's not really sleeping. He's demonstrating what doddering old senators look like when they've hung around too long, like the late Alabama Democrat John J. Sparkman, who served until he was a sickly 79, or Strom Thurmond, the legendary South Carolina Democrat-turned-Dixiecrat-turned-Republican who served until he was 100.

At 82, Sen. Earnest F. "Fritz" Hollings is retiring sharp-tongued as ever: Of George Bush, he says, "He just likes the politics. He likes to get elected. He likes Air Force One." (Marvin Joseph - The Washington Post)

"I've seen 'em," Hollings says, his eyes now twinkling mischievously. "I've seen Sparkman falling asleep in his seat. I've seen others the same way. Poor Strom in his wheelchair. . . . You lose your effectiveness. I've been elected seven times, and now it's time to go home."

So, after 38 years in the Senate, Ernest F. "Fritz" Hollings is heading home to Charleston with his wife, Peatsy. Unfortunately he'll be taking his famous tart tongue with him. Hollings's feisty independent streak and his cutting wit have inspired countless newspaper writers to call him "tart-tongued." He grumbles about that phrase -- he's a world-class grumbler -- but, truth be told, he is pretty tart-tongued.

Hollings once called Walter Mondale a "lap dog." And Howard Metzenbaum "the senator from B'nai B'rith." He said Bill Clinton was "as popular as AIDS" in South Carolina. And those remarks were about his fellow Democrats. He has been even tougher on Republicans. In his last reelection campaign, in 1998, Hollings called his opponent, Bob Inglis, "a goddamn skunk" and suggested he "kiss my fanny."

Hollings once compared conference committee meetings to "feeding monkeys at the zoo." He denounced military aid to El Salvador as the "delivery of lettuce by way of a rabbit." He explained why African "potentates" attend international conferences: "Rather than eating each other, they'd just come up and get a good square meal in Geneva."

When Hollings denounced free trade as a threat to his state's textile industry in a 1990 television interview, reporter Sam Donaldson asked the senator where he'd bought his fancy suit.

"The same place you bought your wig, Sam," Hollings shot back.

"He's an equal-opportunity basher," says Lindsey Graham, the Republican who holds South Carolina's other Senate seat. "My Democratic friends have been scorched by that tart tongue as much as the Republicans."

That's why Hollings is popular, Graham says: "I think people appreciate his independence. He would say something like that and people say, 'Well, that's just Fritz.' He's a larger-than-life character."

Now Hollings is sitting in his Senate office, beneath a huge relief map of the world, his bright white hair glowing, as if lighted from within, his broad smile radiating a mellow good humor. But it doesn't take much to get that tart tongue going. Just ask him to rate the eight presidents -- from Johnson to Bush -- he's worked with.

"Well, it's easy to rate who's the most inadequate," he says. "And that's the present president. Jesus! He doesn't want to be president. He just likes the politics. He likes to get elected. He likes Air Force One. He starts out nearly every day with a fundraiser. He appears at some police station or some fortified something with policemen and firemen. You know, you gotta get the right pictures for the 7 o'clock news. Then he comes in and works out and sees a movie and goes to sleep. And he allows Condoleezza and Cheney and Rumsfeld to run things."

After that, Hollings is warmed up, and he proceeds to offer a variety of candid opinions.

The war in Iraq: "People say they didn't have an exit plan. Well, hell's bells, they didn't have an entry plan! And it's one big quagmire."

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