Foghorn Leghorn Meets an Owl

Oct. 22 1998 3:30 AM

Foghorn Leghorn Meets an Owl

Sen. Fritz Hollings vs. Rep. Bob Inglis.

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But after 45 minutes of this, I begin to suspect that Hollings is being cannier than he lets on. Hollings is betting on old-time Democratic politics, such as they still are in South Carolina. He is counting on a huge black turnout and the last few yellow-dog Democrats. He doesn't want to engage Inglis in some lofty debate about principles. The more he contrasts himself with the cool, schoolmarmish Inglis, the better. All Hollings wants to do is remind people that he's their Fritz and that he got them that road they needed.

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So Hollings embraces Inglis' charges that he's a pork-barreler: "He calls it pork. This is government." He has spent 32 years wangling roads and airports and sewers for South Carolina, and he doesn't mind reminding voters about it. Inglis' spokesman derisively calls this Hollings' "I got you ... I got you ... I got you ... I got you ... I got you ..." speech. But it works. Hollings paints Inglis' obsession with principles as a handicap, mocking his refusal to accept home-district goodies: "What have you done for your district for six years other than whine and complain and holler 'pork'?"

When Inglis vows to serve only two Senate terms, Hollings crows about his experience. He says that Inglis would be "a whisper" in the Senate, a lame duck as soon as he took office. (There is something bravely contrarian about Inglis campaigning in favor of term limits in the state of Hollings and Sen. Strom Thurmond. South Carolina likes re-electing people: Between Hollings and Thurmond, South Carolina has, what, 8,000 years of Senate seniority? Speaking of Thurmond, he plays a hilarious role in this campaign. Both candidates cite him as their model. To name just one example, Hollings uses Thurmond's silence on the Lewinsky scandal to excuse his own silence. Since when did the practices of confused, incompetent Strom become the guide for senatorial behavior?)

Inglis has more ideas, more energy, and--God knows--more principles, and South Carolina's young Christian conservatives are his for the next generation. Still, all the older South Carolinians I talked to at the debate and in Greenville, without exception, plan to vote for Fritz. The loyalty strategy may succeed for Hollings. It won't, of course, succeed for any other Southern Democrat. There are no Democratic senators left in the South who command the kind of affection that Hollings does or who have compiled his 50 year record. But Democrats in South Carolina and in the national party don't really care how Fritz wins. If he wins at all, that will be miracle enough.

Tomorrow: the bizarre South Carolina governor's race, which proves that for the Democratic Party, there is indeed a fate worse than death.