Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings, the silver-haired Democrat who helped shepherd South Carolina through desegregation as governor and went on to serve six terms in the U.S. Senate, has died.

He was 97.

Hollings, whose long and colorful political career included an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, retired from the Senate in 2005, one of the last of the larger-than-life Democrats who once dominated politics in the South.

He had served 38 years and two months, making him the eighth longest-serving senator in U.S. history.

On a personal note, Hollings provided me one of the most unforgettable moments on live television, and I wrote about it in Front Row Seat at the Circus:

 

Let Us Pray

 

If you’ve followed politics you’ve probably heard of the “stump speech.”

The phrase originated back in 1876 when Democratic candidates would stand on tree stumps to give speeches at Galivants Ferry, South Carolina.

For over 130 years the biannual event had been happening in western Horry County, also home to the ever-growing Myrtle Beach.

In 2006 the event, with candidates now speaking from the back porch of an old general store, featured U.S. senator Fritz Hollings.

The state’s senior senator was retiring after a whopping thirty-eight years, the eighth longest-serving senator in history.

When I was in high school, Hollings was seeking the Democratic nomination for president.

I remember watching a debate on television and being impressed with his comments on controlling the huge budget deficit.

Sitting beside Walter Mondale, John Glenn, Jesse Jackson, George McGovern, Reubin Askew, Alan Cranston, and Gary Hart, he was quite a contrast with his snow-white hair and deep Charleston drawl.

Hollings received next to zero votes in Iowa and less than 4 percent in New Hampshire in those early 1984 contests.

But he did manage to get in a fairly memorable dig at his political nemesis John Glenn, the U.S. senator from Ohio.

During one debate, Hollings looked at the former astronaut and said he was “still being all confused in that ‘capsooool’ of his.”

Hollings offered many biting remarks during his career—he called Walter Mondale “a good lap dog, he’ll give them everything they want, he’ll lick every hand.”

He also called his colleague Howard Metzenbaum, another Ohioan, “the senator from B’nai B’rith.”

He said GOP congressman Bob Inglis was a “goddamn skunk.” And he called the leaders of evangelical Bob Jones University “jackasses.”

At one point he said his fellow Democrat Bill Clinton was “as popular as AIDS” in South Carolina, and equated his impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate to ‘’passing a kidney stone.’’

The zingers always seemed to sting even more because of that deep drawl.

NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw called his accent “more southern than a bowl of grits.”

Sen. Fritz Hollings at the 2006 Galivants Ferry Stump Meeting

Hollings once said to me during an answer to a question about the Iraq war, “we don’t neeeeeed anymore diiiive bomberssss.”

I played that clip over and over again in the editing bay and chuckled each time.

In fact, it was so fun to listen to that I made it the ringtone on my phone for a while.

On this particular day, Hollings and I were set to go live right at 6 o’clock.

My co-anchor would be starting the show and then toss out to me at the event.

With about five minutes until airtime I grabbed Hollings who was on the other side of the crowd—about 1,000 strong—and got him into place.

A few seconds later I heard our news open in my IFB (interruptible fold-back, or more to the point, the thing in a newscaster’s ear that lets them hear what’s going on) and I told Hollings we were coming up soon.

As the national anthem wrapped up in the background I adjusted my tie, got my thoughts in place and heard my co-anchor say: “Let’s go out live now to Jim Heath who is with Senator Fritz Hollings. Jim?”

At this exact moment—as if the broadcasting gods were having a good time at my expense—I heard the announcer over the speaker system say the three words dreaded most by live television reporters:

LET US PRAY.

The blood drained from my head.

I’m never especially nervous on live shots, especially political ones, but I instinctively knew this was headed for trouble.

As I said good evening, Hollings dropped his head and closed his eyes. Along with the hushed crowd, he listened as the preacher behind us beckoned for the Lord to bless the proceedings.

What is the protocol here? I frantically tried to answer in my mind.

I remembered Tom Brokaw speaking through a prayer during live political convention coverage, but he was anchoring from a booth, not down on the floor.

Each second that ticked by, my indecision felt like a million years. My IFB was dead silent which meant my producer was obviously leaving it to me to figure out.

I whispered a question to Hollings about Democratic chances this year, and he attempted a whispered reply about how great they were, but this was ridiculous.

Now I was convinced viewers would soon be calling in asking why in the hell I was badgering Fritz Hollings during a prayer.

I stopped and—in a career first—apologized for the situation and tossed it back to the studio. My co-anchor then tossed to a commercial break and the prayer ended.

Hollings chuckled and in that deep Charleston drawl said:

“That wasss unnnnusual.”

A few minutes later, we went back on the air and the interview went on without a hitch.

Jim Heath remembers more from his Front Row Seat at the Circus in coming weeks on JimHeath.TV!

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