Remembering 1974, thanks to Edgar’s cousin

Thank you, Hal Poe, for the wonderful  Total Commitment: A Memoir of God and Politics When South Carolina Elected a Republican Governor. (Full disclosure, Hal and I graduated from Greenville Senior High School together too many years ago to count. I was also in Teenage Republicans, which play a central role in the tale. I know many of the folks mentioned in the book, even though it would be stretching it to say I was “in.” More full disclosure, I saw the light early on and left behind my Republican ways in 1972.)

I had a different perspective of 1974, the year Hal writes about. I was a reporter for The Greenville Piedmont, our hometown’s afternoon paper that has since gone the way of most PMers. While not on state politics full-time, I did have the privilege of covering part of the gubernatorial campaign, and Hal’s insights into the struggle between the Westmoreland and Edwards camps, and what they represented, are dead on. I have a bit of a different take on Pug Ravenel, however.

Permit me two, well maybe three, stories from that campaign that reinforce Hal’s observations.

There was one weekend during the primary when the national press descended on South Carolina to cover Westy’s campaign: Peter Arnett from The Associated Press (my future employer of more than 20 years, it turned out), R.W. “Johnny” Apple from The New York Times and David Broder from The Washington Post, among others as I recall. While there — I think there was a fundraiser dinner that night in Greenville that occasioned the visit — they stopped by a Ravenel news conference. One of them asked me if Westy (Westmoreland’s nickname) would win. “No,” I said, following it with something like: “Only died-in-the-wool, true-believer Republicans vote in the primary, and Edwards has been working in the party for a long time and Westmoreland is seen as an opportunist.” You could tell my answer was dismissed. It was clear they could not fathom how a big name like Westmoreland could possibly lose.

I had to chuckle when he did.

Second story: After Ravenel was summarily dismissed from the race by the South Carolina Supreme Court, I covered the nominating convention in Columbia where William Jennings Bryan Dorn (he dropped the “William Jennings” for the campaign) was handed the nomination after twice being rejected by the voters. I was seated in press row right in the front of the auditorium and remember seeing the glee in the faces of some of the Democratic Party old-timers. One in particular stands out; although I can’t remember his name for the life of me, I do recall that he was a politician from Anderson County. He and a bunch of cronies were overjoyed that, I’m sure in their view, order had been restored. As I watched their celebration, I thought, “You have just handed the Governor’s Mansion to the Republicans.”

Indeed they did, and except for two terms by Dick Riley and one by Jim Hodges, have held it ever since. (Edwards went on to be appointed by Ronald Reagan to head the U.S. Department of Energy and then became president of the Medical University of South Carolina.)

A third story, one I always use as an example of a time when a politician was true to their own beliefs: I don’t remember the exact reason the death penalty was an issue at the time — I think the South Carolina General Assembly was debating reinstating it — but at a news conference in Greenville on a Friday afternoon, I asked Ravenel if he were governor, would he veto the legislation should it pass. “Yes,” was his answer, and he went on to explain why.

The next day was one of Pug’s favorite campaign tactics: a bicycle ride through the countryside. This particular one was from Piedmont to Williamston, and I went along.

Early on, the entourage stopped at a small country story on the roadside near Piedmont. The guy behind the counter took issue with Ravenel over the death penalty. What Pug did was something you don’t see often (at all?) anymore.

He stuck by his guns, debating this potential voter. Watching the discussion, I’m convinced the guy ended up voting for Ravenel. (Remember, he won two elections that summer against the good ole boys of the Democratic establishment.)

I have always believed that if our politicians would be more willing to do what Pug did on that Saturday morning in rural Upstate South Carolina, our democracy would be better off. (I realize that Pug ended up in disgrace several years later after more failed campaigns, and some financial shenanigans, but that summer, he was golden.)

More about the book
My recollection of Hal in high school — while friendly, we were not particularly close — was that he was a slightly bemused observer of the world around him. This book confirms this, I think. I can imagine the twinkle and slight grin that must have been present as he wrote this affectionate, and transcendent, memoir of his journey out of politics and into the ministry (which is really politics of a different sort).

Here’s an example of the keen insights that pop up in the story, and go beyond the moment:

The Ku Klux Klan has done a great disservice to the nation in general that goes far beyond merely murdering people. Because of the Ku Klux Klan Americans have a standard for evaluating racism that sets the bar far below most people. Most people are nicer than the Klan, so most people are not racists. Except when I was a page, I learned that most people are racists and never realize it. … So I learned that the problem of racism lies not in hating people like the Klan does. The problem of racism is much more subtle than that. Racism is what nice people do, but never notice.” (See the current debate about white privilege.)

There’s a lot of understated merriment throughout as well — Hal may not appreciate the comparison, but I was sometimes reminded of the late Lewis Grizzard in some of the storytelling. And I got a chuckle about the several references to “cousin Edgar” without ever mentioning his full name: Edgar Allan Poe.

Hal, Miss Wilds would be proud!

One more story Hal told me as we were corresponding about the book: As he mentions, the Greenville Teenage Republicans helped some of the candidates for local offices, and I was assigned to one Jesse Helms, a local businessman whose politics as I recall were pretty much in sync with the arch-conservative North Carolina senator of the same name.

There was a local liberal Democratic labor lawyer and civil rights activist  — yes such people did exist in the South at that time — by the name of John Bolt Culbertson, who was generally known as “John Bolt.”

Hal wrote, “One of my funniest memories has come back to me and it should be in the book – when Jesse Helms learned that his TAR campaign manager was John Bolt. [He said,] ‘What! What? Who?’ Ken Childs [our advisor and high school history teacher] could not stop laughing.”

I can only imagine.


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