When a long-serving politician leaves office, media types generally tend to reflect fondly upon his career -- to recall the highlights, gloss over the embarrassments and heap praise on his dedication to public service.
(I’ve never really understood that last part -- what exactly is it about the power, the prestige and the six-figure salaries of U.S. senators and congressman that requires dedication? Give me the perks of a U.S. senator. I’d be dedicated, too.)
But what is one to do when there is virtually nothing praiseworthy about a long-serving, retiring politician’s record? What to do when he started at “dreadful” and moved south from there? What if he grew only more stubborn and more backward? Must one come up with something nice to say?
I ask because longtime South Carolina Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings (search) will retire at the end of this session, and it has been already interesting to observe how the media will attempt to put the expected laudatory spin on his dismal record. So far, editorial boards have remembered him as a public servant, loyal Democrat and friend of labor; but history will remember Hollings as a fool.
Sen. Hollings was an avowed enemy of technology, liberty and progress. He has described himself as “a protectionist, and proud of it, ” and has fought America’s transition from a manufacturing to an (much more prosperous) information economy with fist and foot. Everyone still laboring long hours in a Dixie cotton mill can thank Fritz Hollings for their toil and trouble. Every white-collar professional can cash his paycheck in spite of the good senator.
In his speech announcing his retirement, Hollings said: “I looked it up and found out that at the end of World War II we had 40 percent of our workforce in manufacturing. And now we're down to 10 percent. We've got 10 percent of the country working and producing, and we've got the other 90 percent talking and eating. That's all they're doing.”
Aside from the fact that Sen. Hollings himself has made a long career of talking, I wonder how many of us in the “talking and eating” generation would trade places with someone from the era Sen. Hollings longs for. How many would swap an air-conditioned office job doing Web design for, say, a spot on a 1948 assembly line at Ford Motor Co.? The transition from a blue- to white-collar economy isn’t something of which Americans should be ashamed. In Fritz Hollings’ world, the third-generation kid who’s the first in his family to graduate college, the kid whose dad broke his back so he could land that first job with Leo Burnett -- these, bizarrely, are signs that America is moving backward.
Fritz Hollings made a career out of soaking American taxpayers and consumers to protect the anachronistic textiles industry based primarily in the American South. We pay higher prices for clothes while developing nations are denied much-needed access to American markets. Textiles workers in Fritz Hollings’ South Carolina never learn the skills necessary to compete in the new economy.
Meanwhile, Fritz Hollings has gotten big campaign contributions from the textiles industry and political support from textiles unions. Most importantly, he’s gotten himself re-elected.
Each time progress has dared to poke its head into the hallowed halls of the U.S. Senate, Fritz Hollings has been there to beat it back with a Billy club.
Thanks in part to nearly $300,000 in campaign contributions from the entertainment industry, he’s become a tireless champion of the Luddites. Last year, Hollings introduced an outrageous piece of legislation that would have required every piece of electronics sold in the United States to come outfitted with a copyright protection mechanism. The bill would have significantly increased the cost of everything from car stereos to home computers, and would have thrown a wet blanket over further development of digital technology.
Also last year, also with backing from the Motion Picture Association of America, Hollings attempted to circumvent the legislative process and directly persuade the FCC to prevent consumers from recording broadcast television programs in their own homes.
Hollings’ shameless shilling for the entertainment industry has earned him the title “the senator from Disney,” or “Sen. Ernest ‘Fritz’ Hollings, D-Disney” in blogging and tech circles.
But Fritz Hollings isn’t finished.
Gearing up for one last assault on liberty before he leaves office, he has signed on to an effort led by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., to bring back conscription. Don’t think it can’t happen. Leftists like the idea of service and mandatory community-mindedness, and they like the pressure that support for a military draft (search) puts on the Bush administration. Quietly, conservatives enjoy visions of a muscular military reinforced and populated by conscripts. Together they make what several months ago seemed like a joke a disturbingly real possibility.
Fritz Hollings is a walking advertisement for term limits. His retirement only brings to mind that slightly vulgar admonition we give to exiting undesirables, the one involving a door, a posterior and the warning about not letting the first hit the latter “on the way out.”
Perhaps the swan song for Hollings will read something like this:
“Sen. Ernest Hollings made his greatest effort on behalf of liberty this session than any he’s struck in his 36-year Senate career. He announced his retirement.”
Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va. He also maintains a Weblog at www.theagitator.com.