The Has-been

Thank God for South Carolina

Joe Wilson does other politically challenged states a favor.

Rep. Joe Wilson 

When Rep. Joe Wilson embarrassed his home state by calling President Obama a liar on national television, pundits in South Carolina seemed less surprised that one of their leaders would say such a thing than that Wilson was the one who said it. A columnist for South Carolina’s leading newspaper, the State, wrote that when she heard the heckler identified as a South Carolina Republican, “He wasn’t on my top three list of suspects.” For a state to distinguish itself as one of the crank capitals of American politics, it helps to have a deep bench.

In the same way that residents of underperforming states used to console themselves with the saying “thank God for Mississippi,” people in other states that have felt the sting of political humiliation can start thanking their lucky stars for South Carolina. There’s a new champ atop the late-night joke charts, providing a welcome respite for beleaguered citizens from Boise to Baton Rouge.

For example, this was supposed to be a big week for Rod Blagojevich’s never-ending bid to shame Chicago. But when Blago took his book tour onto Jimmy Kimmel’s show Thursday night, Kimmel’s monologue was all about Wilson.

Wilson’s outburst also trumped the week’s earlier Republican shock-jock and YouTube sensation, Mike Duvall, the California legislator who resigned when he was caught at a committee hearing bragging sotto voce about spanking his lobbyist mistress. Duvall now claims that the affair never happened and he was guilty only of “engaging in inappropriate storytelling.” But thanks to Wilson, the national press didn’t even stick around to laugh at Duvall for calling himself a liar.

Not so long ago, Louisianans were trying to explain away Sen. David Vitter’s affair with a prostitute and former Rep. Bill Jefferson’s conviction for hiding $90,000 in his freezer. Now Vitter’s comeback is earning front-page coverage in the New York Times, and jail-bound Jefferson deserves a consolation prize for figuring out the best place to have put your money over the past year.

The sighs of relief are strongest out in Idaho, whose long reign atop the pyramid of political shame may be ending. One blogger in Boise exulted about Wilson, “He’d fit right in with some of our folks.” An Idaho Statesman columnist wrote, “What is it about South Carolina politicians lately? Oh well, at least it’s some other state.”

Wilson’s outburst is just the latest indication that anything Idaho can do, South Carolina can do better. Larry Craig lost his job when he was arrested for solicitation in a Minneapolis airport bathroom. Now Craig is just another lobbyist—and thanks to the exploits of Gov. Mark Sanford, he has to live with the realization that he could have earned five times as many frequent-flier miles by going to the restroom in Buenos Aires.

At the moment, the biggest family-values flap in Idaho involves a restraining order against a prominent Republican National Committee member. Compare that with South Carolina, where a governor who routinely disappeared to visit his mistress in Argentina is still in office because Republican leaders fear the lieutenant governor who would replace him is unstable.

Once home to skinheads, neo-Nazis, and survivalists, Idaho can’t even hold onto the spotlight for gratuitous hatred. Two weeks ago, the Idaho GOP went through its own ordeal by liar when fringe Republican candidate Rex Rammell responded to a question about wolf hunting by saying Idahoans would gladly buy “Obama tags.” Idaho leaders were terrified that Rammell had dealt another body blow to the state’s reputation. But even though he dug his hole deeper by refusing to apologize on the grounds that everyone knows Idaho has no authority to issue hunting tags in Washington, D.C., the state can breathe easier now that Rammell is yesterday’s nut job.

Of course, South Carolina may discover that it’s not easy staying in front of this pack. For one thing, it’s too early to be sure which political embarrassments will linger in the public imagination. Mark Sanford evoked sympathy in some quarters for the apparent sincerity of his transgressions. Larry Craig, by contrast, has inspired a forthcoming play called Wide Stance, about a fictional congressman from North Carolina. Moreover, until Joe Wilson came along, post-Thurmond South Carolina has been better known for politicians more difficult to pigeonhole, like conservative trial lawyer Lindsey Graham and the immortally quotable Fritz Hollings, who hired a blogger to write his speeches a generation before blogs even existed.

South Carolina and Idaho are a world apart in terms of demographics, economics, and culture. Their greatest similarity is in one-party dominance of national elections. Each state has gone Republican in 11 of the last 12 presidential elections. No state has gone 12 for 12. In a typical year, the Republican margin is larger in Idaho, because the Democratic high-water mark is about 10 points higher in South Carolina. But in the liberal donnybrook of 1972, Nixon’s margin of victory in South Carolina was five points wider.

Both states also know how it feels to be looked down upon. Earlier this year, South Carolina’s attorney general tried to force Craigslist to drop its adult listings. TechCrunch summed up the reaction from the company and the blogosphere: “If it really came down to choosing between South Carolina and Craigslist, how many people would rather have South Carolina?”

So other states shouldn’t feel too much schadenfreude at South Carolinians’ expense. As the president put it, we all make mistakes—and this summer of town halls showed that no state has a monopoly on bad manners. Those of us who have known scorn understand what the good people of South Carolina are going through—and can be sure our turn will come again.

Yet as historians seem delighted to point out, South Carolina has spent two centuries building a reputation of outspoken rebellion, from the nullification crisis of 1832 to antebellum caning in 1856 to secession in 1860. By the time Idaho joined the Union, South Carolina had already tried twice to leave it. For the people of Idaho, at least, Joe Wilson’s lapse was a reminder that despite all the bad press we’ve earned in recent years, our outliers are mere nouveau fringe. South Carolina had such a head start, the rest of us are still playing catch-up.