The first time I ever heard the voice of Ernest F. (Fritz) Hollings-- and they make memorable voices in Charleston, S.C.--was on radio on election night 1960.
John F. Kennedy, to some surprise, was carrying South Carolina. What did Gov. Hollings think of that? "Now," he intoned in the rich low-country baritone, "our job is to bring the rest of the country into line with South Carolina."
I thought: that kind of wit will carry the gentleman far; and so it has. He has been an accomplished governor and senator for more than 20 years, and now he wants to be president.
He is, if memory serves, the first native son of the Seat of the Late Rebellion to offer himself for the office, and some professional detractors of the South will think that cheeky, even after 122 years.
But remember, in all fairness, that it was an aged Virginia zealot, not a South Carolinian, who fired the first cannon ball at Fort Sumter that April day in Charleston harbor. And remember, too, that Charleston has been as celebrated for mavericks as for bottled-in-bond southern orthodoxy: James L. Petigru, whose comment on secession was that South Carolina "is too small to be a nation, too large to be an insane asylum"; the Grimke sisters, abolitionists; Judge Waities Waring, who overthrew the "white primary" system.
Fritz Hollings sounds and looks, but isn't, southern orthodox. He was talking sense about race--and doing something about it--when it took political courage to do so.
I have a hunch that a Hollings presidency would be a tonic. That is not, I hasten to say, an expression of favoritism so much as an expression of boredom at a host of insipid rivals waggling wet fingers in the breeze.
Hollings is not insipid, so little so that the main peril to his candidacy (apart from obscurity, a thin purse and regional prejudice) may be his tendency to be himself and say what he thinks.
One thing he thinks, and plans to make the theme of his campaign, is that we need to freeze federal spending until revenues catch up. That is certainly one way to overcome the looming budget crisis. He says it would be "painful," and he's right. But even the Reagan budgeteers have acknowledged that we face a "structural deficit," a polite way of saying that even if there's an economic boom there will be too little revenue to pay our bills, as far as the eye can see. Choose your pain. You can say of the Hollings spending freeze, paraphrasing Churchill, that it isn't very appealing but it's the best proposal on the table. It will take character to defend it, but I don't expect Hollings to flinch.
But even if Hollings talks sense about the budget mess, he will also face a virulent regional prejudice. "I have to get over the hurdle of the Carter presidency," as he puts it.
The hurdle is formidable, and involves more than one presidency. All four southerners who have made it to the White House since 1865 have been a bit strange: Andrew Johnson, combining courage with hillbilly obstinacy; Woodrow Wilson, preacher, professor and Celtic mystic; Lyndon Johnson, who was the vision and obstinacy of the earlier Johnson, cubed; Jimmy Carter, an engineer whose presence was too much shaped by a lifetime of hearing (bad) Baptist sermons.
Yet as Hamilton Jordan and others have argued, Democrats who covet the presidency are stuck with the South--as the South has been stuck all these years with the Democrats. It's the nation's one durable marriage of political convenience, oddly punctuated from time to time with bursts of real affection.
Put the two facts together--the Democrats' critical need of southern electoral votes, with a disconcerting memory of southern presidents--and you have a problem. Yet it is an unnecessary problem. There are southerners who are politically skilled and at once both southern and modern in outlook. Hollings is one of them, one of the best of the first crop of post-1954 southern governors.
If by some miraculous pause from political frivolity the Hollings candidacy were to get the serious look it merits, we might all be pleasantly surprised. And the ghost of southern strangeness in the White House might be permanently laid. At this stage of the game it's only a notion, but sillier ones have been thought and expressed in this space.