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A character study


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2000

GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Two days before the primary, even the pollsters are shrugging.

South Carolina is hard to know.

As the novelist Pat Conroy once described his home, "My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call."

But for once in its poor old life, South Carolina may have the last word.

George W. Bush and John McCain are wrestling in the sand, grunting to impress voters with who's the better conservative. The winner here Saturday could become the clear favorite for the GOP presidential nomination.

Understanding the confounding heart of South Carolina requires moving away from the scripted oyster roasts and prayer breakfasts. It takes getting off the campaign bus.

It takes a map.

Begin in the Lowcountry along the coast of South Carolina, where the shrimp nets are being replaced by golf carts.

Move northwest to the middle of the state, where the Confederate flag snaps hard above the State House in Columbia.

Then journey on to the rolling Upstate, where mega-churches beam Jesus in IMAX and new auto plant workers have replaced the old lintheads of the textile mills.

South Carolina churns with voters unlike any other in the nation. Political messages are tuned accordingly. Where else could a mailbox contain an anti-abortion flier with a picture of a baby and the plea: "This little guy wants you to vote for George Bush."

Remember, the first shot of the Civil War was fired from here. God and race flow beneath every argument. Voters can be stubborn, and they don't mind a fight.

As the Republican state Sen. Arthur Ravenel Jr., says, "Ain't no fun 'till there's friction.' "

* * *

In the mossy hamlet of Mount Pleasant, set back from the barrier islands of the Carolina coast, Col. Bayard Pickett walks onto his back porch. White rockers. A view of the water. The colonel descends the set of stairs that lead to the yard. He holds the railing. He is 72.

Pickett wears pressed khakis and polished loafers. He always did like having his shoes shined. When he came back from Vietnam -- First Marines, Fifth Battalion -- the first thing he did in California was have his shoes shined. He was in uniform. A stranger spit on him.

Pickett walks toward the flag pole. A cold Carolina dusk, but the sun flames pink on the the harbor. The colonel begins to lower his American flag, as he does every night.

Over his wedding band, he wears a large gold and garnet football ring from the University of South Carolina. The same one that went to Korea with him.

The flag comes down and he folds it, tightly and properly.

Red is for blood, blue is for courage, white is for purity.

"What John McCain went through is unbelievable," Pickett says, of McCain's POW experience.

"But I also feel in my heart that other people put in the same position would have done the same thing. I feel George Bush would be a good leader."

Where so many find worry, the colonel finds comfort.

"He has been around politics all his life with his family," he says. "A lot of that rubs off. I like his approach to China, to Russia, to the U.N. We can't keep carrying the heavy load for other countries."

One of Pickett's favorite words is honor, only it comes out "ahna."

His beloved president, Ronald Reagan, had it. George Bush had it. And maybe, the son George W., will bring some back to the White House.

* * *

Down on Shem Creek, a half-mile from the colonel's stately home.

"Bayard Pickett is for George W. Bush?" shouts Bobby Santos. "He'll never eat another shrimp or fish from this dock!"

Santos, 73, owns Geechie Seafood, a small white building tucked among the shrimp boats. Santos has slapped two bumper stickers to the front of his business:



With the sun gone, there is nothing but cold. The boys at Geechie Seafood, all Republicans, down a few quitting-time cans of Busch beer.

Bobby Santos is a former Navy gunner's mate. Born on James Island, once a boy in a johnboat, now the title-holder of a 72-foot commercial trawler. He has a deep suspicion of men who came up too easy in life. John McCain suffered. He didn't surrender. He took it.

"The man has guts, charisma and dignity," says Santos, who speaks in a mash of Gullah and Dixie. "I know he was young, he was full of vinegar, but who wasn't when they were young?"

The Lowcountry -- where 58 percent of the state's veterans live -- is populated by men like Santos who revel in McCain's full-throttle, bomb's-away style.

They share a mistrust of politicians. A bitter taste for Bill Clinton. A craving for some larger truth.

When the Arizona senator made a campaign stop at the waterfront Charleston Maritime Center, Santos and two Navy pals took their boats to hear him. They were clapping and thumping in the harbor.

"I don't like Bush," says Santos. "There's something about him I just don't trust. He gets that stupid, corn-fed ex-governor of ours (Carroll Campbell) saying McCain does not stand for vets. Man, that takes a lotta nerve."

Santos is a sharply drawn individual -- brash and prone to off-color tales. He knows South Carolina's religious right is supporting Bush, which only endears him to McCain.

His suspicions date back to the 1930s, when he and his father took wealthy Baptists -- politicians and lawyers -- from the Upstate on hunting expeditions on Kiawah Island. On one such trip, a man had too much to drink and knocked a new Browning rifle into the water, which Santos had to dive in to retrieve.

The memory has shaped his voting life.

"A politician away from home can wear long horns," Santos says. "The upper parts of our state always votes dry and drinks wet. They are nothin' but a buncha shell-back Baptists."

But enough talk for the night. Santos switches out the light at Geechie Seafood and heads for his truck.

"So Bayard Pickett is for Bush, huh?" he asks, with a grin. "When you see Bayard again, ask him if he's still in love with Jane Fonda. Ha!"

* * *

Time for a ride into town. The car tires rumble over the cobblestone streets of Charleston, the city of Lowcountry aristocracy, where coffee is poured from monogrammed silver pots.

Sen. Ravenel's office is on E Bay Street in the former home of a rice plantation owner. Ravenel occupies a drafty office on the second-floor. A Confederate flag decal is stuck to a file cabinet.

Ravenel holds court in his Gullah patois. Describing particular friends around Charleston, he'll say, "Oh, she's a bird" or, "He's a scream."

Tall and lanky, Ravenel, 72, is the old guard of South Carolina politics. He first held office in 1952 as a Democrat but switched to the Republican Party in 1960, along with scores of other state politicians.

"We didn't leave the party, really, the party left us," Ravenel says, leaning back in his chair. "Southern Democrats had always been very conservative. But then Kennedy and the leadership of the party became more and more liberal. The black influence in the Democratic Party is more and more pervasive."

For 20 years after he switched parties, Ravenel got used to losing. But every election, the Republicans got closer. The breakthrough was in 1980 when Ronald Reagan became president. South Carolina Republicans, including Ravenel, were swept into office.

Ravenel is a social conservative, but Charleston-style. He attends his French Huguenot church each Sunday for a 45-minute service then enjoys a glass of wine with his dinner.

Lowcountry conservatives like Ravenel are generally more relaxed than the Bible brigade of the Upstate. But Ravenel is hard line on one issue: the protection of the Confederate flag.

He recently referred to the NAACP as the "National Association for Retarded People."

He later apologized. To retarded people.

Next to a box of cordial cherries, Ravenel's desk is cluttered with fan letters and political cartoons that make fun of the NAACP.

He is waiting for Bush or McCain to stop punting on the flag issue. (Both candidates say it's up to the state to decide.)

"I'm gonna vote for which ever candidate is most respectful of Southern heritage," Ravenel thunders, "because it's our business, it's nobody's business but ours."

* * *

The soggy land begins to dry out as you travel out of Charleston. The interstate cuts through cypress, which obscures the old plantations.

On toward the middle of the state, but first, a stop in Goose Creek, where McCain is scheduled to speak at a local high school.

The snowy-haired candidate bounds up on the stage to crushing applause. He is self-deprecating ("It doesn't take a lot of talent to get shot down") and he makes slight comic digs at Buddhists and vegetarians, but not Democrats, because he needs their swing vote.

There are two black faces in a crowd of maybe 600.

One is Lawrence Harps, a 45-year-old Air Force man. "I'm a fiscal conservative," he says. "I wanted to see what John McCain was all about."

Is it lonely, being black at a Republican event in South Carolina?

"You can really get depressed if you think about it," he says.

* * *

The car radio is tuned to a country station. George W. Bush is in the studio for a live chat. The Texas woodsmoke burns off his words. He is affable, relaxed, a hunting buddy. He mentions that his campaign bus is being driven by the same guy who drives for country singer George Strait.

Who's your favorite actor? the disc jockey asks.

Bush pauses. "Chuck Norris. He's a Texan."

Favorite movie?

Another pause. Saving Private Ryan.

Maybe Bush hasn't noticed that South Carolina is papered with life-size campaign posters of a young John McCain in his Navy flight suit.

Turn the dial to another station. Urban contemporary. The morning banter is about politics.

"What about Keyes, the brother?"

"That dude is too hyper."

Raucous laughter. "What is he on?"

* * *

Columbia is the capital city in the middle of the state, burned by Gen. Sherman's army in 1865 and still not ready to forgive. The controversial Confederate flag whips in the winter sunshine over the State House.

Inside the 19th-Century marble lobby, an anti-abortion activist wears a jacket safety-pinned with pink plastic babies. He is such a fixture no one bats an eye.

On the Senate floor, Sen. Glenn McConnell stands at the podium and makes a case for why the Confederate flag must fly.

"It doesn't belong to contemporary politics," argues McConnell, a white Republican from Charleston. "It belongs to the honor of people who scratched and crawled and sat at campfires in the morning and prayed to their God that the darkness they would see later that day would be the shadow of night and not the shadow of death."

In response, Sen. McKinley Washington, a black Democrat from Charleston, rises and gives his own baritone sermon.

"Any time we saw the Ku Klux Klan with the flag, our parents said, "You have to run and hide, because something bad is going to happen to you.' "

A black lawmaker reports that he has received a written death threat for his opposition to the flag.

To which Sen. Ravenel gets up and announces that he, too, once received a death threat, from an angry fisherman who disagreed with save-the-turtle laws.

* * *

Bales of hay near the collard green fields of Lexington County, impaled with a large sign:


On a lonely back road in the cold February night. A white sign nailed to a pine is illuminated by headlights:


A mile later, the red glow from a beer sign. A Confederate flag is stretched across the back wall of the bar, with Bad to the Bone on the jukebox.

Which path to take?

The darkened towns of Prosperity and Silverstreet fall by. Mile after quiet mile, until the whine of 18-wheelers pierce the frosted stillness. Interstate 26 appears.

Dead ahead is the heart of Bush territory.

* * *

The metropolis of Greenville and Spartanburg counties appear like a shining city: a Southern sprawl of clover-leafs and master planned communities.

The Upstate of South Carolina, which borders North Carolina, is exploding with industrial growth. BMW is here, Hitachi and Michelin, all lured by low taxes and a lack of unions.

Church life dominates, business is booming.

"This is a Bushy kind of place," says James L. Guth, a political scientist at Furman University.

Bush has assumed he'll take the Upstate. Greenville and Spartanburg counties usually account for a fourth of the state's turn-out in Republican primaries.

But this race is different. McCain is appealing to Republican moderates, independents, and even Democrats.

Which leaves Bush slightly vulnerable in his own stronghold.

The companies that brought so many jobs also brought outsiders, like the table of Pakistani engineers huddling over coffee at the Beanery on Greenville's Main Street.

The morning paper carries a half-page advertisement sponsored by NumbersUSA, an anti-immigration group:

"No community in any state will be assured of escaping the ravages of California and southern Florida. The wave is coming your way. Ask your candidates if one million immigrants a year are too many."

* * *

The evangelical Bob Jones University in Greenville. Ground zero for God and the GOP.

It was here that Bush launched his South Carolina primary campaign after his trouncing in New Hampshire. The born-again Texan needed redemption bad.

Since the '70s, Bob Jones University has been the strictest training wing of the modern Christian right movement, according to Guth and Oran P. Smith in God at the Grass Roots: The Christian Right in the 1996 Elections.

The school has referred to the Roman Catholic Church as a "Satanic counterfeit." Interracial dating is banned.

Yet a small number of black students attend the school. Its president, Bob Jones III, called for the removal of the Confederate flag over the state capitol.

The 225-acre campus sits beneath a gentle spread of oaks. The bricks are yellow. The gates are high. Female students wear long skirts. Young men are closely barbered; many in ties.

In the wake of Bush's campaign visit and the criticism it brought, the college is on uneasy terms with the media.

Six minutes is all it takes to get thrown off by campus police.

But six minutes allows a brief chance to ask one student, Greg Davis, about the presidential race. "George W. Bush," Davis politely answers, sitting outside the dining hall.

The 20-year-old social studies/eduction major is intrigued by McCain and uninterested in Keyes. Before he can explain why, the campus police officer arrives.

The student has a parting question of his own.

"If you were to die today, where would you go?"

* * *

The hilly town of Mauldin, in Greenville County. Suburbia. Video rental shops and paintball parks and karate academies.

Martha Freitag glances down the oak table at her three students. How she loves them. The pale winter light comes through the window. The bookshelves are lined with the American classics: Robinson Crusoe, Little House on the Prairie and the Collected Poems of Robert Frost.

Freitag, 41, grades papers. The panting under the table comes from a yellow Labrador.

The Freitags are home schoolers.

"Mom," asks Timothy, 9, chewing on an eraser, "Three times seven is 21, right?"

"That's right."

To teach biology lab, Martha Freitag orders fetal pigs from an Internet biological supply company in Colorado.

Her husband left a good job at Michelin to teach home schoolers and work on his seminary degree. Their family of six now lives on $35,000 a year. The odometers on the Toyota and the minivan have both flipped past 150,000.

They are New Hampshire transplants, college-educated, scraping by, and voting for Alan Keyes.

"There are a lot of us who say we don't care what color your skin is, we care what you stand for," Freitag says. "They say voting for Keyes is throwing away a vote. The odds are stacked against him, I know. I will vote Republican, whoever the candidate is, but I'll use the primary to make my statement."

Freitag signals the new fissures in South Carolina's religious conservatives, who have long set the trend for the national Christian right movement.

They are no longer taking marching orders.

"There was a point in time when conservative Christians thought if we could just get the right people in office, our problems would be solved," Freitag says. "We realize now we're not going to solve our problems with government. There is a much clearer view of reality."

* * *

Take a last glance at the South Carolina Republican establishment, spread across the state, from the Lowcountry to the Upstate.

It cannot be underestimated.

It's about loyalty. It's about legacy. It's about familiarity, Southern man to Southern man.

State Rep. Harry Bancroft "Chip" Limehouse III was won over by George W. Bush the first time he met him. The Texas governor stuck out his hand and said, "Big Chip, how's it goin?"

Limehouse saw Bush again at a rally in Florence.

"He came up to me again, and called me "Big 'un.' I kind of liked that."

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