F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said there are no second acts in American life — and for him it was certainly true. But many since Fitzgerald's day — from Richard Nixon to Charlie Sheen — have contradicted that theory. I have been wondering lately if we are about to add another name to that list.
Thomas Ravenel looked as politically dead as Tom DeLay when he walked out of federal prison a couple of years ago. And he should have been, yet there have been strange emanations from the corpse in the last year, and one wonders if it is trying to stage a resurrection.
But before we speculate, let's review: Ravenel was the state GOP's golden boy and anointed one when he was elected state treasurer in 2006. The scion of one of the state's most revered political families, he was already being groomed by the proto-Tea Partiers to replace Lindsey Graham in the Senate. But less than six months into his first term, the wheels came off his career and his life when federal authorities arrested and charged him with distributing cocaine. There was no suggestion that he had sold the stuff — he hardly needed the money. But apparently he had handed it out like candy to friends at his epic parties.
He resigned from office, pled guilty to conspiracy with intent to distribute cocaine, and went into federal custody for 10 months. Unlike his father, Arthur Ravenel, who's political career spanned four decades, Thomas' lasted less than a year.
Released from federal custody and still in his mid-40s, Ravenel must have cast about for something to amuse himself, some way to keep his hand in the game, his name in the news. And he found it.
Last February, he wrote an op-ed column that ran in newspapers around the state, calling for the legalization of drugs, an issue which was, no doubt, close to his heart. It was a stunning position for a man who was once a rising star in the family-values party, but Ravenel made his argument forcefully and defended it well.
"Drug abuse is a medical, healthcare, and spiritual problem, not a problem to be solved within a criminal justice model," he wrote. Modern prohibition is "our government's most destructive policy since slavery."
Drawing on history, he said that alcohol prohibition led to an era of violence, corruption, and organized crime. "We know, not from intuition but from history," he wrote, "that when we end drug prohibition, crime, murder, inner-city decay, corruption, and waste of lives and national treasure will all dramatically decline as it all mercifully did after the repeal of alcohol prohibition."
One could argue — in fact, many did in letters to the editor of The Post and Courier — that Ravenel's position on drugs was a cynical response to his own legal troubles. And perhaps one would be right. But his highly publicized war against the war on drugs certainly did nothing to help him recover what was lost in his downfall. And how would that explanation fit with his next public utterance?
Throughout the late summer, Ravenel spoke out again in op-eds and letters to the editor around the state. This time his target was nothing less than the military-industrial complex.
"Why do we have 227 military bases in Germany, 124 in Japan, and 87 in South Korea?" he asked. "Why must the U.S. taxpayer shoulder the cost of military defense for wealthy countries? ... The Pentagon budget has nearly doubled in real terms since 1998 and is the highest since World War II. If our country goes bankrupt, would that be a national security issue?"
He added, "We need to cut military, not defense spending. Most of the Pentagon's budget is about the military-industrial complex and has nothing to do with defense. How big a lead do we need? We have 10 aircraft carriers, and our biggest potential adversary, China, is working on its first."
Two observations about Ravenel's new-found libertarianism: First, in a state that loves its military and rarely shrinks from imposing and policing personal morality, he could hardly have been more provocative. His remarks do cause one to wonder what our political culture would be like if libertarians and liberals teamed up to work on issues they agree on, which largely deal with foreign entanglements and civil liberties. Imagine Barney Frank and Ron Paul introducing bills to decriminalize marijuana possession on the federal level.
Beyond fantasizing, I have to wonder how many other closet libertarians are hiding in South Carolina's Republican closet. It took disgrace and downfall to free Thomas Ravenel to come out. Now that he is out, why has he become so public and strident in his positions? Is he beginning his second act?