I remember when Walter Mondale came to Beaufort

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By SCOTT GRABER

It’s Saturday, Jan. 3, and its raining. This morning I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I won’t be doing yard work this morning.

This morning will be an opportunity to write and remember. And my memory — often uneven and indistinct — immediately transports me to July of 1976 when Walter Mondale came to Beaufort.

It was reliably, characteristically hot on the evening of July 24, 1976, when Jimmy Carter (the Democratic Party’s Presidential nominee) sent his Vice Presidential running mate to Freedom Mall on Beaufort’s waterfront.

Carter needed Mondale to balance his ticket but wondered whether the Minnesota Senator was too liberal for his South Carolina kinsmen.

The local folk streamed into the still hot parking lot mingling with Senator Ernest Hollings, former Gov. John West, Lt. Gov. Brantley Harvey and Congressman John Jenrette.

Lending glamour to the event were news crews from the three major networks along with Hamilton Jordan, Jerry Rafshoon and Mary King — Carter’s young, hotshot advisors. Our very own Billy Keyserling was in charge of transportation for this event.

After a welcome from Brantley Harvey, Fritz Hollings stepped on the stage and began his effort to persuade a Beaufort crowd which, in my opinion, was skeptical. Hollings went straight at the 800-pound pachyderm then in the room.

“Some people call Walter Mondale a flaming liberal. But you know… I see my friend John Trask is with us this evening and I know Big John is a farmer. And a farmer knows what it means to work and sweat and get a crop in. And John, I don’t know anyone who has done more for the American Farmer than Fritz Mondale.”

After a pause that let a modest cheer play across the steaming parking lot, Hollings said, “And I see Mr. Barnwell, Tom, is with us tonight. When Tom went to Washington in 1968 (to testify before the Select Committee on Hunger and Nutrition) Fritz Mondale was one who listened. And he was one that acted. No, this man doesn’t come to you with only promises.”

Then, squinting in the low-angled, late-afternoon sun Hollings said, “This is the kind of decent man (pause for emphasis) who could win a local race in Beaufort County.”

After Mondale’s response — which reminded me of his convention acceptance speech — everyone made a dash for the boiled shrimp, corn on the cob and sweet tea. Mondale (posing for a photo op) popped an unpeeled shrimp in his mouth to the complete astonishment of those present. And Mondale’s confused, contorted face was the defining, enduring image of the evening. His bug-eyed face is what we all remember.

As the evening wore down Billy Keyserling came to me and asked if I would drive the CBS crew to the Savannah Airport. He said the assigned driver was drunk and there was some Secret Service Protocol about inebriated drivers in presidential motorcades.

And so my night ended up with a 75-80 mph, bumper-to-bumper race through Jasper County. At one point I got scared and backed away from the car immediately in front of my car. This allowed a ‘foreign car’ into the 10-car cavalcade.

“Now you’re done it,” said the correspondents.

“What? What have I done?” I responded.

“The Secret Service can’t allow any vehicle, not connected with the campaign, into this convoy.”

Sure enough an unmarked car fell out of the column and then got itself in front of the intruder. Then it slowed, forcing the intruding car to slow, and then it somehow forced the intruder onto the shoulder and out of the caravan.

As we passed the stopped cars the CBS correspondents were screaming with laughter saying, “Graber we haven’t seen that maneuver in years!”

In a subsequent article I wrote for Osceola Magazine I said, “His (Mondale’s) liberal record will be a problem for the ticket in these parts. But his record won’t overcome or overwhelm our regional pride. It has been a long, long time since a Southerner — a legitimate, deep south Southerner — has had a shot at the crown. For too long we have had to suffer the likes of George Wallace and Theodore Bilbo and others who have stereotyped this region and the people who live here. No sir, we’ll vote for Jimmy Carter and we’ll swallow Fritz Mondale and maybe … perhaps we’ll be better for it.”

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com.