The death last week of former Gov. Carroll Campbell offers an opportunity to look back over several decades of sound and fury and to marvel at how little has actually changed in South Carolina politics.
Campbell did for the state political scene what Ronald Reagan did for the national scene -- created a major realignment between the two parties. Campbell was not as disastrous for South Carolina as Reagan is proving to be for the nation, only because this state was already a social and economic wreck when he was elected governor in 1986.
Not everyone shares my sardonic opinion of the late governor. Under the headline, "Carroll Campbell's stellar legacy," the editorial writers at The Post and Courier predictably described Campbell as "a state hero, role model, visionary, and inspiration." The P&C eulogists mentioned state government reorganization, ethics reform of the General Assembly, and luring BMW to Spartanburg County as the major accomplishments of Campbell's administration. True enough. But in the final analysis, South Carolina's standing among the states was not changed by Campbell's exertions. Last in the best, first in the worst. That has been South Carolina's traditional ranking and it was a tradition Campbell left unchallenged.
Campbell's most lasting accomplishment, of course, was to solidify the Republican hold on political power in the state. When he became governor, the Democrats controlled both houses of the General Assembly, and the white population was evenly divided in its loyalty between Republicans and Democrats. When he left office eight years later, Republicans controlled the Assembly and most whites identified themselves as Republican. Campbell accomplished this by subtle manipulation of words and symbols -- including the Confederate flag -- to let whites know that the Republican Party was now their party.
Carroll Campbell could herd white people the way a border collie herds sheep. A bark here, a bite there; he could keep them agitated and running until he got them where he wanted them. Today, most of the white people in South Carolina are in the Republican Party fold, grazing and bleating contentedly. And why not? With the Confederate flag flying in front of the Statehouse and homosexuals firmly under control, what more could a citizen ask for?
But there is an even darker side of the Campbell legacy, one that is almost completely forgotten. Today, the politics of fear and division, smear and innuendo are more deeply ingrained in our national politics than ever before. And it was two men, more than any others, who brought us to this shameful impasse. One was South Carolina native and political operative Lee Atwater; the other was his friend and colleague Karl Rove, who created George W. Bush from a lump of ignorance.
In 1978, Carroll Campbell was running for Congress in the fourth district. His Democratic opponent was Greenville Mayor Max Heller. Atwater was working for the Campbell campaign and the race was close. Campbell's pollsters had asked several questions regarding religion and ethnicity, and learned that voters could overlook Heller's being a Jewish immigrant, but they could not vote for a man who did not accept Jesus Christ as his savior.
Enter one Don Sprouse, a third-party candidate and high school dropout who had never run for political office before and never would again. Two days before the election, Sprouse held a news conference to remind the good people of the fourth district that Heller was, indeed, a Jew who did not "believe that Jesus has come yet." He went on to say that a Jew should not represent South Carolina's fourth congressional district.
Campbell won that election and was on his way to Congress and later the governor's office. He denied knowing anything about Don Sprouse or setting him up to play the religion card against Heller. Perhaps he was telling the truth, but Atwater was happy to take credit for the deed.
Atwater would go on to manage the George H.W. Bush presidential campaign in 1988, the campaign in which he created the infamous Willie Horton ad, terrifying white Americans with the image of the black rapist. In the 2000 GOP presidential primary campaign, Karl Rove & Co. won the critical South Carolina primary for GWB with a smear campaign accusing Sen. John McCain of fathering a black child.
Carroll Campbell's life and career came at a critical nexus in American politics. South Carolina was a laboratory for the kind of campaigning that has come to dominate national elections. It worked brilliantly here and operatives like Atwater and Rove learned to apply the techniques to other campaigns and candidates around the country. And while Campbell may or may not have been directly involved, he profited from the practice.
The P&C's hymns notwithstanding, Carroll Campbell was a mean little politician who knew how to win elections in the meanest little state in the nation.