When I was a teenager in South Carolina, one of my father's friends told him that the county sheriff, who was running for re-election, had been accused of having sex with a female crime victim's corpse. Dad's reply was, "Not that again!" It seems the same story had circulated the last time the sheriff had run.
That's the kind of story the national media is referring to when its reporters, covering the South Carolina GOP primary, say that the state's politics are "rough and tumble." Not that the national media dug up that particular story — nor any other story, for that matter, if it didn't come up first in a Google search. Instead, most of the national media repeat the one incident they obviously consider a high point: the 2000 Bush campaign's anonymous accusation that McCain had an illegitimate black child.
One can easily chalk up the mainstream media's lapses in this instance to mere laziness. It's troubling, though, that they have completely failed to report how S.C.'s electoral ruthlessness enormously influenced, and eventually took over, national Republican campaigns. That major gap in reporting is a mark of how little the national media think anymore about providing context for viewers and readers.
Our neighboring state has long been infamous for rough-edged political races that too often slop over into no-holds-barred, shit-slinging, completely amoral, life-ruining, lyin'-ass, cruel political campaigns. That's why it was astounding last week when CNN — looking, I suppose, for a scoop of any sort, whether true or not — said that South Carolina's reputation for dirty tricks was exaggerated. My first reaction was to think about the corpse-screwing sheriff, followed quickly by a tale told to me by a veteran reporter in upstate South Carolina: "At some point in the early '60s during the Anderson, S.C., town council race, a councilman's opponent sent a very pregnant black woman to a council meeting to plead with the councilman to help support the two kids she supposedly already had by him. It was all crap, and it backfired on the opponent, but it's not like anybody was surprised by the tactics."
So why does the Palmetto State produce political races that are twisted enough to make Louisiana's contests seem civil? Christopher Lamb, a communication professor at the College of Charleston and author of The Sound and Fury of Sarah Palin, has followed S.C. politics for years. Lamb says his state's wide-open campaigning can be simply explained by a quote from 19th-century S.C. unionist James Petigru, who reacted to his state's secession from the U.S. by saying, "South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum."
Another longtime observer of S.C.'s political wars, journalist Will Moredock — former CL-Charlotte news editor and currently a columnist for the Charleston City Paper — says S.C.'s rancor is merely Southern contrarianism taken to the next level. "White Southerners in general feel aggrieved by the world or by whatever, and their grievance gives them the right to do whatever they feel necessary to 'make things right,'" Moredock said. "It applies doubly to South Carolinians, who have always been more radical, more self-absorbed, more insular and tribal than [the residents of] any other state."
Perhaps that rancor-is-the-norm attitude is what led to South Carolina's unsung but huge influence on national political races. It began with the rise of Lee Atwater, the dark prince of S.C. politics who loved to say that an effective political campaign should "strip the bark off" an opponent. He turned that outlook into a perverse art form, and then trained a disciple who may yet top the master.
Atwater gained notice in D.C. after he got a client into a congressional seat by spreading the story about how his client's opponent, who had undergone electroshock therapy in his teens, "got hooked up to jumper cables." Soon afterward, Atwater was enlisted by the national GOP to help them, too. Thus, Bush Sr.'s notorious "Willie Horton" ad was born, a racist hit job on Michael Dukakis that helped propel Bush to the presidency.
Atwater extended his influence by training Karl Rove — Bush Jr.'s brain, architect of his Texas and White House wins, and the acknowledged king of contemporary hardball politics. In fact, it was Rove who masterminded the "McCain has an illegitimate black child" lie. See? It's no coincidence that since Atwater was succeeded by Rove, our national politics have grown closer in tone to S.C.'s brand of cutthroat tactics.
So when you hear about GOP presidential candidates digging up dirt on their opponents in South Carolina, realize that those tactics aren't simply the norm down there — their influence has spread like a virus for three decades, and infected the national political arena as well. Lucky us, huh?