“The ox is in the ditch.”
That’s an adage frequently offered by Fritz Hollings, South Carolina’s larger-than-life former governor and United States senator who passed away April 6 at age 97.
But what did it mean? “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert once asked Hollings with a twinkle in his eye.
Hollings, who often used colloquial sayings to make a point, explained that when an ox hauling a wagon went into a ditch in the olden days, it took more than the ox to pull the wagon out of the ditch. It took several people working as a team to make things right.
So when Hollings, who retired in 2005 after a 38-year Senate career, talked about oxen and ditches and national budgetary, trade or jobs problems, he was saying the country needed to pull together and work as a team to get us out of a particular ditch.
And these days, we’re in a big national ditch, particularly with an untruthful president leading the country away from core values in ways no other president -- Republican or Democratic -- would have ever imagined. Truth, justice and the American way have been replaced by lies, recklessness and partisan tribalism. Foundational principles, such as the rule of law, seem to have been thrown out the window. The good of the country seems to have been replaced by the greed of a few.
And that’s why today’s leaders need to emulate independent, maverick and sometimes cantankerous voices like Fritz Hollings.
As a former Hollings staffer, my days since the senator’s death have been filled with lots of phone, text and email messages from longtime readers, colleagues and friends expressing condolences. And while I’m sad he is gone, I’ve suggested that people across the state and nation should celebrate his life of accomplishments.
By any measure, Hollings accomplished more in one lifetime than six normal people. As governor, he created the technical education system that provided better job opportunities and wages to hundreds of thousands of South Carolinians. He balanced the state’s budget, earning the AAA credit rating -- something leaders have maintained for almost 60 years. He started SCETV, which brings education into people’s homes.
On the national level, he impacted millions of Americans. Untold numbers of mothers and children received food through the WIC program that started after his groundbreaking book, The Case Against Hunger. More than 27 million Americans today receive primary medical care in community health centers through the Health Resources & Services Administration, an $11 billion agency that he helped bring into existence. (The first two centers were in Beaufort County and Massachusetts.)
And those accomplishments were just in his first few years in the Senate. He was the father of critical environmental protection measures, trade bills, budget freezes and commerce legislation that unlocked a telecommunications revolution. The list goes on and on. (See more at FritzHollings.com.)
Hollings spent a career in public service doing the public good. He constantly strived for new ideas and better ways of doing things to fix problems created by others. He challenged colleagues to push for a better America.
And on a personal level, he was about as good of a friend as you could have. One Charlestonian recently recalled that he ran into the senator at an airport and admired his cufflinks. Hollings took them off and gave them to the man. That’s the kind of guy he was.
Fritz Hollings defined the very qualities that Americans are hungry for today -- leaders who speak their minds and care about what the people need, not what big business, rich people and insiders want. They want someone who calls ‘em like they see ‘em. They want people who care more for the country than tribal sycophants looking to get past the next news cycle.
Yes, senator, the ox is still in the ditch. More than ever, we need people like you to speak their minds and lead. Thank goodness, you’ve shown us the way to move forward.
Ernest Frederick Hollings. Rest in peace.