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.
"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."
Intelligence briefings: "I learned not to go to those intelligence briefings because you can read it all in the New York Times the next morning, and I don't want to be charged with any leaks."
Reporters: "They just look for a smart-ass remark. They already got their stories written, and they're just looking for filler to show they did a little bit of work."
The folks who run Bob Jones University, the controversial Christian college in South Carolina: "Jackasses."
Farmers: "They're freeloaders on government."
But Hollings doesn't just spout outrageous opinions. He also tells outrageous stories.
"The black church is the stability of the African American community," he says. "There isn't any question about that. And they're all fine and I work with 'em, but they expect the money to get out the vote. . . . I can tell you of one race -- the minister is now dead. This is 20-odd years ago. He kept saying, 'I gotta get the money. I gotta get $10,000.' I got a friend to give him the $10,000 to get the black ministers to get the vote out. And, by God, [Republicans] came around after us and said, 'I know you need a steeple on that church -- here's $15,000, just don't hurt me tomorrow.' And that minister went up to Anderson, S.C., because his aunt got very sick and he had to go. And the Republicans took that [precinct]. . . . Republicans know how to run elections way better than Democrats. They're calculating! Hell, they know money talks. They get the best pollsters, the best consultants, the best techniques, the best of Hollywood. Hell, they elected a movie star -- Ronald Reagan. Jesus Christ!"
Going His Own Way
"He had me locked up," says Rep. James Clyburn, a fellow South Carolina Democrat.
Clyburn laughs. "I tease him about that. He says, 'I didn't do it, it was the mayor.' "
He's talking about a 1960 anti-segregation sit-in in Orangeburg, S.C. Clyburn was one of the black students arrested. Hollings was the governor, having campaigned as a segregationist. He invited the students to a meeting.
"I was impressed with him at the meeting," Clyburn says. "He made it very clear to us that while he was protecting [segregation], he did not necessarily agree that it was the best system. . . . He also taught me my first political lesson: He made it very clear to us that what he said to us was personal, and he didn't want it repeated to the media that was waiting outside the door. He didn't want to have to deny saying it."
Back then, Hollings was 38, the boy-wonder governor and rising star of South Carolina politics. Son of a store owner who lost everything in the Depression, he fought in World War II, earned a law degree, then ran for the legislature in 1948, the year Gov. Strom Thurmond ran for president as head of the pro-segregation Dixiecrat Party.
Hollings voted for Thurmond over Harry Truman, who is now one of his political heroes. "Good God -- NATO, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan," Hollings says, ticking off Truman's accomplishments. "But as a young politician in '48, hell, I wasn't thinkin' of any of those things. I was thinkin' of gettin' elected."
He got elected. And reelected. Then in 1952, he was dispatched to the Supreme Court to help argue the state's case for school segregation. He heard a lawyer for the other side say, "How in the world can you ask them to serve in the front lines in Europe and when they come home, ask them to sit in the back of the bus?"
"As a veteran, that just struck me," he says. "I realized that just ain't right."
He did not run home and advertise this epiphany because . . . well, he was trying to get elected. When he ran for governor in 1958, he promised to defend segregation. But in 1963, he did something no other Southern governor dared: In a now-famous speech, he told the legislature that integration was the law of the land and "it must be done with law and order."
A week later, Clemson, one of the state-run universities, was integrated without violence.
"That speech made quite a difference," Clyburn says.
Meanwhile, Hollings was raising taxes and balancing the state budget for the first time in years, while building a system of technical schools and traveling the world to lure industry to South Carolina.
"He's considered the governor who put South Carolina on the path to modern industry," Clyburn says.
In 1966, he won election to the Senate and soon gained a reputation for independence. He led the fight for federal anti-hunger programs. He crusaded for tariffs to protect South Carolina's textile industry. He fought for a balanced budget -- although he never let that stop him from bringing home as much federal bacon and other pork products as he could.
"He was ahead of his time, talking about a balanced budget and the loss of manufacturing jobs decades ago," says Graham, the other South Carolina senator, who then adds: "Sometimes his record as an appropriator was a bit of a contradiction."
In 1984, Hollings ran for the Democratic presidential nomination as a budget balancer, telling interest groups he would cut their favorite programs while raising their taxes. Not surprisingly, his campaign went nowhere.
"I was selling castor oil," he said the day he quit the race.
He did better back home, winning reelection six times in a state that was becoming increasingly Republican. Thurmond, who'd turned Republican in the '60s, kept trying to lure Hollings.
"For the last five or six races," Hollings says, "Thurmond would say, 'Hell, just change parties with me. We'll get you the consultants, we'll get you the pollsters, we'll get you the money. You won't have to do anything.' "
Hollings decided he'd rather fight than switch. The Republican rise in the South, in his view, "started with the 1964 Civil Rights Act." Before Lyndon Johnson signed that law, he says, the South had a "sweetheart deal" with the Democratic Party: "We'd vote for the economic programs as long as they voted for segregation. But once that was broken with the Civil Rights Act, you had Strom join the Republican Party with the same old nonsense you heard Zell Miller say -- 'The party left me!' " Hollings emits a bitter laugh. "He left the party, it didn't leave him. It's still for Social Security, for Medicare, for public schools."
Hollings says he managed to win as a Democrat by assembling an unlikely coalition -- blacks, teachers and even some Republicans.
"A lot of Republicans helped me," he says. "They won't give me any money because they don't want their names listed in the paper, so when they go to the club on Saturday night" -- his voice rises to a shriek as he parodies an irate country club wife -- " 'Why did you give to that damn Democrat?' It would start a big damn fuss. So they won't give me any money. But they pass the word. And that's enough. I get by by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin -- with 51 percent or 53 percent. The last four races have been really rough."
Graham has a different theory about Hollings's success. "He's tough as nails, and he would fight back unapologetically," Graham says. "And he always delivered for the state as an appropriator, so even if people disagreed with his stands, they figured he was a value-added product. "
Plus, people just like the old curmudgeon, Graham says. "He's the only guy I know who can call his opponent a G-D skunk and at the end of the campaign have the opponent say, 'I really liked that guy.' That pretty much sums it up."
A List, Not a Legacy
Hollings hates this whole farewell thing. It makes him cranky. Well, crankier.
He didn't want any farewell parties, his staffers say, but he reluctantly agreed to a "Tribute Gala" on Sept. 14 in Washington because it raised $2 million for his favorite charity, a Charleston research hospital called the Hollings Cancer Center.
At the gala, 600 people heard Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) call Hollings a "senator's senator" and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) say, "I can't imagine a Senate without Fritz Hollings."
Hollings was moved -- so moved that his famous tart tongue failed to function and his speech was nothing but sweetness. But now, sitting in his office, he's grumbling about people asking about his legacy.
"Everybody keeps asking about legacies, and that's the disappointment," he says. "I hate to leave in the middle of a fight and we're still in a fight for fiscal responsibility on the budget. We still haven't gotten a good competitive trade policy. We haven't done anything about TV violence. We've got a cancer in politics -- campaign money. I've got a constitutional amendment to deal with it, but I haven't been able to pass that."
He keeps going with this roll call of unfinished business, then sums up: "So I got a long list of things I want to get done instead of talking about my legacy."
He loves the Senate, but he laments that senators are too busy raising campaign money to study the issues and engage in real debate.
"Now you don't have any debates," he says. "Everybody comes out with a little script. . . . The Republicans on the floor are on-message and we have Democrats on the floor on-message. And you all" -- the media -- "are just like lemmings, you just take the message, take the script. And nothing gets done."
The good thing about the Senate, he says, is that it compels you to keep learning. An avid reader, he touts books on his Senate Web site, from Jacques Cousteau's "The Ocean World" to Alexander Hamilton's "Report on Manufactures." And he pores through a half-dozen newspapers a day, something he never did when he was a trial lawyer back home.
"It's been an education up here," he says. "I've been enriched by it. I'm way better off than my colleagues back home. The lawyers there -- most of 'em are dead and the rest of 'em are lookin' for a new drink to drink and another golf course to play. And they don't have any idea what's going on. The best postgraduate course you can possibly have is to be a United States senator. You get a new issue across your desk every day. You got to listen to both sides and vote."
He looks up at the clock on the wall. He's been talking for well over an hour.
"That's enough," he says. "You've got plenty. Good God!"
He says he's got other things to do, but he doesn't get up. He keeps talking. He takes a swipe at the No Child Left Behind law -- "hogwash!" -- then takes on school vouchers: "At the time of Brown against the Board of Education" -- the decision that outlawed school segregation -- "we had 16 private schools in South Carolina; now we've got 372," he says. "And that's the whole thing of vouchers -- to finance the private schools."
He rips into George W. Bush again, scoffing at the president's plan to bring democracy to the Arab world.
"You can't force-feed democracy," he says. "God knows in this country, a hundred years into it, we had a bitter, four-year, violent war, the Civil War. Yeah, we said, 'All men are created equal' in the Declaration of Independence, but it wasn't enshrined in the Constitution until Brown against the Board of Education. Come on!"
He pauses for air, then continues: "But the Lord has been with us and we pulled together and we got a great country and we got more freedom than anybody else. But to walk into a place where religion is stronger than freedom -- they're not looking for freedom, they're looking for religion. Five times a day, they're down on their knees, man. You can't find that in America. You can't get 'em to go on their knees on Sunday -- "
At this point, his press secretary, Ilene Zeldin, interrupts.
"You about done?" she asks.
"Yeah," he says.
After 38 years, he is about done, and it's safe to say the Senate won't see anyone quite like him anytime soon.