CAMDEN -- South Carolina politics never fails to amuse -- and bemuse.
A recent ethics imbroglio between Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and GOP activist John Rainey is a case in point.
The squabble would be of passing provincial interest if Haley weren't a rising star often mentioned on lists of potential vice presidential candidates.
And had she not called Rainey, a nationally recognized philanthropist and community bridge-builder, a "racist, sexist bigot."
Such charges deserve clarification and context.
Haley made the remarks during a state House Ethics Committee hearing that was prompted by a complaint Rainey filed alleging that Haley had lobbied illegally while she was a legislator. Haley has been cleared of any wrongdoing and there's no need to re-litigate here, though Rainey promises that the issue is not dead.
Meanwhile, her invectives toward Rainey, though perhaps understandable given an exchange between them (about which more anon), are contradicted by his record. Rainey is anything but racist, sexist or bigoted.
Haley's feelings apparently had been hurt during her one meeting with Rainey while she was a gubernatorial candidate. She had sought the meeting, doubtless hoping for financial and political support, but Rainey was skeptical. He knew nothing about her at the time, he told me, and couldn't find anyone who did. Everyone he spoke to said the same thing in so many words: "I don't know anything about her, but I know she's the party's candidate and I support her."
"That," Rainey told me, "is the kind of thing that makes me want to throw up." Party loyalty over all other considerations is what ails American politics, he said.
In questioning Haley at the meeting, Rainey indicated that all cards needed to be on the table, that he didn't want to find out at some point that her family had ties to terrorists. Haley, who is of Sikh Indian descent, clearly took offense.
Nevertheless, she wrote a nice note to him, Rainey said, remarking that she never showed any indication of offense during their meeting until he raised questions about her lobbying activities. "That was the end of the meeting," Rainey said, but his curiosity was further piqued. He began probing her past and raised questions about what he viewed as ethical transgressions.
Rainey doesn't recall making the specific "terrorist" remark, but takes the word of others present that he did. Any such comment, he insists, would have been in a "jocular, expansive fashion," rather than mean-spirited.
Rainey is known to be outspoken and irreverent, but also as a scrapper for fairness and reconciliation. Comments offered in jest or off-handedly nonetheless can be wounding, which Rainey acknowledges and now has experienced.
Inarguably, the governor's charges, made publicly and aimed at a citizen, albeit a powerful one, are far more damaging than whatever Rainey said during a private meeting. Judge as you may, but consider the following facts before accepting Haley's indictment of Rainey.
For no personal gain, Rainey frequently has raised money and organized groups in common cause across party lines. He and wife, Anne, marched in 2000 with 46,000 others to protest the Confederate flag, which then flew atop the South Carolina Capitol dome. He personally hosted several private meetings with NAACP and legislative leaders to find a compromise for the flag's removal.
He served as executive producer and raised funds to finance Bud Ferillo's documentary "Corridor of Shame" about the dismal condition of public schools along the I-95 corridor through South Carolina. Candidate Barack Obama visited one of those schools and cited the corridor in campaign speeches.
In 1999, Rainey chaired the fundraising committee for the African-American History Monument on Statehouse grounds. In 2002, while chairman of Brookgreen Gardens, he raised funds to erect a World War I doughboy statue in Columbia's Memorial Park and sponsored a bust of a 54th Massachusetts Infantry African-American soldier. He received the sixth annual I. DeQuincey Newman Humanitarian Award in 2004, named for the United Methodist minister and first African-American elected to the South Carolina Senate following Reconstruction.
Latest to the roster is a sculpture Rainey has commissioned honoring two Camden natives, financier Bernard Baruch and baseball great Larry Doby. Baruch was a philanthropist, statesman and consultant to presidents (Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt). Doby was the first African-American in the American League and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998.
The sculpture, which will be unveiled next April, is a monument not only to two local heroes, but also to the sort of reconciliation Rainey represents. His record speaks louder than words.