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The night they drove old Dixie down

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Kathleen Parker
June 11, 2010
— Stranger than South Carolina’s politics is the nearly nativist pride many take in its nastiness.

Not the good folks of the Palmetto State, but rather the politicos who work diligently to manipulate the sort of voters who, for example, would elect Alvin M. Greene to the U.S. Senate.


Who? Good question.


The Democratic mystery man who was nominated to run against Republican Sen. Jim DeMint seemingly materialized out of nowhere, without any evidence of having had a campaign. Greene, an unemployed veteran discharged from two branches of the armed services—and under investigation for allegedly showing lewd images to a University of South Carolina student (a charge he denies)—reportedly paid the $10,400 filing fee out of his own pocket.


So strange is the emergence of Greene, whose numerous post-election interviews have gone viral on the Internet, that fellow South Carolinian and House Majority Whip James Clyburn has requested an investigation into his political rise.


“Something was going on in South Carolina that was untoward. … I couldn’t quite put my finger on it,” said Clyburn.


Truer words.


South Carolina Republicans, meanwhile, called for the resignation of state Sen. Jake Knotts for calling gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley a “raghead” a few days before the primary. The race was either the nadir or the zenith of high jinks politics, depending on one’s point of view. Let’s just say that the question “How low can you go?” isn’t strictly rhetorical around here.


Knotts, who says he “could care less” what his fellow Republicans think (and won’t resign), insists the slur was a joke. More likely it was a strategic move to broach the religion issue and implant the idea in voters’ minds that Haley might be a Muslim. It was a calculated risk that in another political cycle might have served him well.


Not this time. Racial and ethnic slurs today are political suicide in South Carolina.


Haley shot to the top of the ticket, in spite of two men’s claims that they each had a romantic interlude with the candidate, a married mother of two.


While the rest of the nation reeled in indignation—or guffawed at the Comedy Central punch line that South Carolina has become—natives shrugged. Thus it has always been. But why is that, exactly? When does it stop? More to the point, does anyone really want it to?


Many invoke the famously dirty-dealing Lee Atwater, who apologized to some of his targets as he was dying of brain cancer. But Katon Dawson, the former state Republican chairman who was defeated by Michael Steele for national party head, theorizes that the state’s dirty politics can be traced to the American Revolution:


“General Francis Marion, aka the ‘Swamp Fox,’ started it with untraditional warfare against the British by attacking, inflicting massive damage to the enemy, and then retreating into the swamps and backwoods of South Carolina. This is a part of our heritage that still goes on in modern political campaigns. … We all have a little of the Fox in us—and proud of it.”


Be that as it may, something shifted in South Carolina this time that has gone largely unnoticed. The big story, says Dawson, isn’t the alleged affairs, the ethnic slur or the mystery candidate. It is that voters rejected dirty politics-as-usual and the old boys’ club.


Haley defeated a list of veteran politicians, including Attorney General Henry McMaster (who deserves an award for gentlemanly behavior).


And down here in the Lowcountry, where the Civil War began, Tim Scott, an African-American Republican, outperformed two of the most powerful names in the state’s political history for the 1st Congressional District seat—Carroll Campbell III, son of the late Gov. Carroll Campbell Jr., and Paul Thurmond, son of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond. Scott and Thurmond will square off in a June 22 runoff.


Though Haley fell slightly short of the 51 percent needed to win the nomination, and faces Rep. Gresham Barrett in a runoff, she trounced her competitors in part because voters rejected the nastiness that motivated the attacks against her.


For her own part, Haley told me that her biggest concern was that her attackers made her state look bad.


“I want the country to know we’re not a bunch of ignorant rednecks down here. And the vast majority of South Carolinians do not think that way.”


If this kind of thinking prevails, Jon Stewart may not have South Carolina to kick around for much longer.


Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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