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South Carolina embarrassed by politicians behaving badly

Gov. Mark Sanford and Rep. Joe Wilson are just the latest examples. Late-night jokes aside, some fear the shenanigans are paralyzing state government and causing visitors and businesses to stay away.

October 22, 2009|Mark Z. Barabak

COLUMBIA, S.C. — It's tough these days being from South Carolina. Ask Dick Harpootlian.

He was in Peru, on a train from Cusco to Machu Picchu, when he and his wife began chatting with another couple. Where, Harpootlian asked, are you from? Rio, came the response, and you? South Carolina, Harpootlian replied. Mark Sanford! the couple exclaimed. Argentina!

Later that night Harpootlian returned to his hotel room, flipped on the TV and picked out two words in a stream of Spanish: Joe Wilson. (As in, "You lie!")

"Thousands of miles from home," Harpootlian said with a sigh. "In the middle of nowhere."

Harpootlian is a prominent lawyer, former head of the state Democratic Party and a fierce partisan. Sanford and Wilson are Republicans.

But Harpootlian is hardly alone in his civic embarrassment.

"This is a small state that doesn't get on the national stage very often," said David Woodard, a GOP consultant who teaches political science at South Carolina's Clemson University. "To get on the stage because your congressman shouted at the president, or your governor is running around with an Argentine mistress, isn't what you want your state to be about."

It doesn't help that the state treasurer was sentenced to prison last year for cocaine possession.

Or that the state agriculture commissioner went to jail for ties to a cockfighting ring.

Or that the head of the state board of education resigned amid allegations she used a pseudonym to post erotic fiction on the Internet.

Quite a lively few years in South Carolina, mused Jack Bass, a historian at the Citadel in Charleston. "If you're thinking of retirement and you tend to get bored easily, come on down," Bass said. "You'll enjoy the place very much."


"Gov. Mark Sanford said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. . . . He was really climbing Mt. Mistress." -- Craig Ferguson, "The Late Late Show"

So what is it about the place?

South Carolina has a long history of hotheadedness -- it was, after all, where the Civil War started. (In 1860, James L. Petigru, an attorney and Union loyalist, described South Carolina as "too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum," a line dredged up countless times since.)

The state also has a reputation for some of the nastiest campaigns in the country. Lee Atwater, who grew up in South Carolina, transferred its scorched-earth tactics to the 1988 presidential race as manager of George H.W. Bush's campaign. Twelve years later, George W. Bush clinched the Republican nomination after operatives here smeared John McCain with claims that his adopted Bangladeshi daughter was his illegitimate black child.

On Sunday, two GOP officials thought they were being helpful when they lauded Sen. Jim DeMint's thriftiness in an opinion piece invoking a Jewish stereotype. DeMint condemned the comment, and the party chairmen apologized.

South Carolina was once among the richest places in America, thanks to its lucrative plantation economy. Some say arrogance and an obstreperous attitude have been bred into people ever since -- which might account for Wilson's outburst.

But ask about, say, Charles Sharpe, the former agriculture commissioner convicted in 2005 of taking money to protect an illegal cockfighting ring, and you're likely to hear about other scandal-stained figures: New York's Eliot Spitzer, New Jersey's Jim McGreevey, Louisiana's Edwin Edwards.

"Some of it is the natural hubris of politicians who believe the rules don't apply to them," said Phil Noble, a Democratic strategist in Charleston. "That's not new to America or unique to the South."

Matters of the heart are, of course, a mystery, and few profess to understand Sanford's reckless behavior.

"This is a small enough state where people feel they know their politicians personally, or they know their family or where they go to church," Woodard said. "His case is pretty astonishing. There's a real sense of betrayal."


"Sanford admitted to having an affair in Argentina. . . . Great, now we're outsourcing mistresses." -- Craig Ferguson

There is a lot of smiling through gritted teeth these days in South Carolina. It seems outsiders had pretty much forgotten the fight over the Confederate flag, the last big story to gain national attention. (Under a compromise, the banner was removed from the Capitol dome in 2000 and now flaps, somewhat faded, over a Confederate memorial on the Statehouse grounds.)

Now this.

Lee Bussell, who runs a public relations and ad agency in Columbia, was recently at a conference in Little Rock, Ark., where he endured a weekend of ribbing -- "How's Mark doing?" -- over the state's Lothario governor.

"You have to be able to laugh at it to keep from being defensive," said Bussell, who wouldn't be worth the ink on a news release if he didn't at least try to make a positive pitch for his home state: "All those incidents don't represent the mainstream of the people in South Carolina. It certainly doesn't make me any less proud of where I live."

So how is Mark doing?

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