In 1947 Ernest Hollings graduated from law school, at age 25--the normal age for students who go straight through school. The difference was that Hollings had also spent four years in the Army as well as four years before that in college; he graduated from college at 20 and finished law school after the war in two years. By the fall of 1947 he was trying jury cases and won a $55,000 verdict-- a huge sum in Charleston, S.C., in those days --and by 1948 he had won election to the South Carolina legislature, finishing first in a field of 24 candidates in Charleston County. He was a young man in a hurry, getting everywhere he wanted to go, and fast.
Some people around Washington assume that Hollings comes from the old Charleston aristocracy: his appearance, his bearing, his booming voice and his thick Charleston accent all give the impression of a man who is in command of things. But Hollings isn't from the aristocracy at all. He was not a member of St. Cecilia's and he didn't grow up in the beautifully preserved houses painted in pastels at the tip of Charleston's peninsula. He grew up farther north, where the trees are sparser and you notice the overhead electrical and telephone wires everywhere, above where the railroads intersect the street on their way to the wharves. The accent is thicker than the aristocratic Charleston accent and closer to the way Charleston blacks talk; it's so thick, and Hollings' speech is so rapid, that many northerners find him hard to understand.
His father was, in Hollings' words, "a drummer; they'd call him a salesman now. He'd go to all the islands, from Adams Run to Edisto"; he was in the wholesale paper and notions business, selling items to corner stores. It was a tough business in the 1930s, "and we were just hanging on for awhile." His father died in 1940, "worked and worried to death." Hollings was then a sophomore at The Citadel, the military college in Charleston; he went there because a bachelor uncle, an alumnus, promised to pay his way if he did. He worked Christmases sorting mail, and in the summer was part of a crew on a ship in Charleston harbor doing soundings--measuring the depth on the Cooper River. After browning in the sun, he'd work the midnight shift as an assistant desk clerk at the Francis Marion Hotel--not an easy schedule in the relentlessly humid Charleston summer in those days before air conditioning.
Nevertheless Hollings seems always to have had a confidence and a sense of command. At The Citadel "I was a sort of Bolshevik," he says. Often "I ended up on the quadrangle, walking tours--taking a rifle and pack and marching" on the bare concrete space. But when he graduated, "my legs were in good shape." Graduation was in 1942, and he went straight into the Army, as a lieutenant. At Fort Stewart, Ga., he commanded soldiers from "New York and Martha's Vineyard," Italians out of Brooklyn and Irish out of Boston; he remembers the names and mimics the accents with good fidelity. The Bolshevik cadet was now a tough disciplinarian. In drilling his troops hour after hour, "my company never heard of a damn ten- minute break." A senior officer said, "Damn it, lieutenant, you won't have any men left. But when they said they wanted a break, I just said double time." He says it with the smile of a man convinced that the tough training paid off. "We went all the way, from Africa to Corsica, southern France, Alsace- Lorraine, Austria. They'd kill for me and I would for them."
When Hollings got out of law school, he didn't get a job at an old law firm. He was a trial lawyer, one of those plaintiff's negligence lawyers who were considered in those days renegades by the old-line bar. He made his living by speaking to juries, and the evidence --the quick $55,000 verdict--suggests that he wasn't the least bit shy about doing so.
Command came naturally. And so did success at politics, it seems, although he entered electoral politics accidentally. Another lawyer in his firm, David Goldberg, ran for the legislature three times; "he could carry Charleston but not up north"--the blue-collar country around the big Navy base. "So they said to me, 'why don't you run.' So I got to know the magistrates and others and campaigned and won." He won big--"a combination of fright and work," he says, and also because, "my daddy gave me the good name. People would say to me, 'You Bubba Hollings's boy? If you're half as honest as your daddy, you're okay. Just put those cards of yours up on the cash register."
The next few years, by Hollings' account, were a series of successes, with Hollings spotted as a young man of promise by major figures. He was a floor leader in 1951 for James Byrnes, the incoming governor, who had been a Supreme Court justice and secretary of state in the 1940s. There followed a series of assignments in Washington: working for the Hoover Commission, and on the Doolittle Commission investigating intelligence agencies, along with the likes of Gen. Mark Clark and Eddie Rickenbacker. He was named an outstanding young man of the year in 1954, along with Robert Kennedy and the great test pilot, Chuck Yeager; two years later, at the 1956 national convention, he was "wheeling and dealing for votes for Jack Kennedy for vice president."
All this must have been heady stuff for a man in his early thirties who had left the Army less than 10 years before with no particular prospects. But the responsibilities were much greater after he was elected governor in 1958, at age 36. South Carolina has a long history of defying the federal government, and then it was one of the most segregated states in the nation. Hollings did not campaign as an integrationist, but he was determined--and made no secret of it--that the law and the decisions of the courts would be enforced.
"I can say proudly that not a soul was hurt or lost his life." That wasn't accidental. When a school was to be integrated, or a civil rights march was scheduled, Hollings took personal command of law enforcement, bringing in black patrolmen from local forces that had them and letting them arrest civil rights demonstrators who broke local ordinances. He's proud also of his record of setting up vocational schools and supporting education, and believes it's a major reason for the vast increase in number of jobs and income levels in South Carolina in the 1960s and 1970s.
In 1963, at age 41, Ernest Hollings stepped down as governor; this man who seems at home being in command has not held an executive position since. He went back to trial law, set up his own firm and restored an old firehouse on the Charleston waterfront for his office; he won his Senate seat in 1966, beating his successor as governor in the Democratic primary and winning the general election in the most Republican year South Carolina has ever had.
He's been an important senator, taking the lead on anti-hunger programs when he was aroused to find that malnutrition still existed in South Carolina, chairing the communications subcommittee that regulates broadcasting, leading the Democrats on the Budget Committee in 1981 and 1982. He speaks fluently and confidently; he seems genuinely concerned about the personal problems of colleagues and acquaintances, yet he can be derisive and short about their professional mistakes and weaknesses.
He has arresting ideas about policy: his proposal for a freeze on spending increases and tax cuts is one way to symbolize the idea that you can't get anyone to sacrifice unless you can get everyone to do so. He seems frustrated, however, over the difficulty of communicating to people what must seem so obvious to him from his experience: that he's a man who can take command of things, who can steer the nation confidently where it needs to go.