Does South Carolina Have the Most Embarrassing Government?

In the wake of New York Gov. David Paterson's latest scandal, The Economist said "Dysfunctional Albany…is frequently cited as the nation's worst state government—a title for which there is intense competition." We at NEWSWEEK are fans of competition, so seven of our staffers made the case for states with which they're intimately familiar. Here Managing Editor Carl Sullivan argues for his home state of South Carolina.

"Yet another reason to be proud of my home state." I've lost count of the number of times I've made that post to Facebook, followed by a link to the latest salacious political embarrassment involving South Carolina. We may not stand a chance in the battle for "most corrupt state" title, but boy do we know how to stay in the headlines. Just a few recent examples:

How could such a small state (population 4.5 million) generate so many humdingers in the last year alone? Well, the Palmetto State has a long history of volcanic political eruptions, as I recall from my mandatory 8th grade state-history course. Just weeks after Abraham Lincoln was elected president, South Carolina was the first to secede from the Union. A few weeks after Lincoln's inauguration, Confederate forces in Charleston fired the first shots of the Civil War.

So Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst wasn't that surprising to me—and pretty tame compared to at least one of his predecessors. In 1856, Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina marched into the Senate and attacked Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a cane until the bloodied Sumner lost consciousness. (It took Sumner three years to recover, when he returned to the Senate.) Like Brooks (who was hailed as a hero at banquets held in his honor), Wilson no doubt scored political points back home for interrupting the president—with a factually false assertion, by the way (Obama was not, in fact, lying when he said that health-care reform would not cover illegal immigrants). Still, many South Carolinians of all political stripes winced. Mama always said, "An invited guest never raises his voice or embarrasses his host." Especially if your host is the president of the United States.

Another thing you don't do is air your dirty marital laundry in public (Too much information, Gov. Mark Sanford.) Illicit affairs have a long history in South Carolina, though they're usually a poorly kept gentleman's secret (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). The state's longtime patriarch, Sen. Strom Thurmond, was rumored for years to have fathered out-of-wedlock children. But you didn't read about it in the papers—at least until after his death. Only then was it confirmed that Thurmond (who ran for president on a segregationist ticket in 1948, and who holds the record for the longest filibuster ever conducted by a single senator, in opposition to the 1957 Civil Rights Act) had fathered a child with a 16-year-old African-American housekeeper when he was 22. Compared to Sanford, Thurmond (who's still a practical deity in the state) was a model of discretion. (In the interest of full disclosure, I interned for Sen. Thurmond just after high-school graduation.)

One factor that helped Sanford avoid impeachment: the man who would replace him. Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer already had a reputation for reckless behavior when in January he compared helping poor people to feeding stray animals. "My grandmother…told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals," Bauer said during a town hall meeting. "You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that." Naturally, a number of state Republicans weren't too excited about the prospect of a Gov. Bauer. "Quietly, some lawmakers worried that ousting Sanford would give Bauer an unfair fundraising advantage in the 2010 governor's race," reported The State newspaper.

Saying stupid things isn't unique to Republicans from my home state. Former Democratic senator Fritz Hollings had a penchant for lobbing unforgettable lines—made all the more jaw-dropping because they came with his elegant patrician accent. Speaking about international conferences, Hollings once said, "Everybody likes to go to Geneva. I used to do it for the Law of the Sea conferences and you'd find these potentates from down in Africa, you know, rather than eating each other, they'd just come up and get a good square meal in Geneva."

South Carolina, it seems, is never too far from the seedier side of national political conversation. In the first presidential election for which I was eligible to vote, 1988, political consultant and native son Lee Atwater was working his magic against Michael Dukakis. Remember the infamous Willie Horton ad that played on racially tinged fear of crime? Atwater atoned for his political sins before dying of a brain tumor in 1991. But his take-no-prisoners style of campaigning lived on in his colleague Karl Rove. Just this week, Rove denied having anything to do with a nasty whisper campaign in South Carolina's 2000 Republican presidential primary. Someone was spreading the false rumor that Sen. John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child, which helped McCain lose to George W. Bush. (Why doesn't any of this stuff ever happen in North Carolina?!)

And even the nation's "first black president," Bill Clinton, got into hot water with some black voters for dismissing Barack Obama's victory in the South Carolina primary by noting that Jesse Jackson had also won the state, and well that didn't amount to much, now did it? (Speaking of Jackson, he was born in Greenville, S.C., so we might as well accept him as an honorary Sandlapper. Which gives us the opportunity to recall Jackson's derogatory reference in 1984 to Jews as "Hymies" and New York City as "Hymietown.")

As for the 66-year-old deputy assistant attorney general found with a stripper and sex toys during his lunch break in a secluded part of a cemetery in the state capital last fall? Mama always said, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nuthin' at all."