It is 8 a.m., Saturday, and I am in Port Royal. It is overcast, colder, and I’ve broken out a woolen, long-sleeved shirt.
Last night my wife and I watched “Remains of the Day” starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. This is a movie that tells the story of an English butler and his female assistant who were “in service” in the 1920s and 1930s.
The story — a series of flashbacks — portrays a man completely devoted to his employer, Lord Darlington. It also describes a series of conferences that Darlington hosted in his Downton Abby-sized castle involving political issues such as the resuscitation of Germany after the Versailles Treaty.
There is a scene where Hopkins, the butler, is interrogated by an aristocratic guest regarding post war reparations and balance of payments. His answers, actually his inability to answer, are a way for the supercilious, single malt-sipping aristocrat to show that the lower class (in Great Britain) has no business making decisions — or even voting. It is the lounging aristocrat’s argument that the upper class should retain its exclusive right to govern.
In the United States we have — or profess to have — an antipathy to the notion that one is born to govern. We hold firmly to the notion that everyone — regardless of their education or station in life — has the right to vote. But this fundamental belief has now morphed into the notion that our legislators should check-in with their constituents before they actually cast their vote.
Which brings me to the late Harriet Keyserling who represented Beaufort County in the Legislature back in the 1980s and 90s.
Harriet went to Columbia, after serving on the School Board and County Council, joining a group of progressives that included Bob Sheheen, Palmer Freeman, Paul Cantrell, Jean Toal and Dick Riley. When Harriet got to Columbia she focused on nuclear waste, the environment and education.
In those long-gone days, my wife and I played tennis with Herbert and Harriet on Saturday afternoon. They had a tennis court and would invite a dozen people to their court who would rotate into a continuous, ongoing doubles game. The players included Don Hanna, Dr. Louis Rempke, George McMillan, Emil Klatt, Dan Huff and a few others.
After the game was over, Susan and I would often stay for dinner. Sometimes there was a visiting legislator who would push a bit of variety into the tennis talk usually focused on one’s backhand. One evening we discussed South Carolina’s budget, and I asked Harriet how she found time to evaluate the State’s fiscal priorities.
“I can’t be expected to understand every line item,” she said.
“There are other members in the House who are experts in certain areas,” she said. “I seek their advice.”
She went on to explain that she relied on older members who had built their service around a particular topic.
I must admit that Harriet’s candor gave me comfort because, to some extent, we all have to rely on the judgment of others who have spent their lives studying South Carolina’s economy or the storage of nuclear waste. Importantly, voters have to assume these experts understand these issues better than they do.
But beginning with Ronald Reagan we have been taught that government, both State and Federal, “is the problem.” Importantly we have witnessed the massive, costly mess the Legislature nurtured and ignored in terms of South Carolina Electric and Gas. While individual members were not responsible, they certainly failed in terms of their collective oversight of SCE&G.
At the same time, we have come to believe ideological purity is the most important quality on almost every issue, that legislators should only look to the voters and are merely a conveyor belt for public opinion.
None of us wants to return to the 19th-century aristocratic notion that not everyone is smart enough to govern. But some issues are complicated, counterintuitive and beyond the application of “common sense.” Importantly, some issues transcend ideology and the party’s platform. Sometimes a legislator is going to have to go against public opinion.
Years ago we had Senator Fritz Hollings, who sometimes exercised his insight and independence and was routinely chastised for that independence. But somehow Hollings got himself re-elected every six years.
It is impossible to imagine someone like Fritz Hollings or Harriet Keyserling in today’s legislatures. And this is not a good thing — just ask Representative Nancy Mace who recently voted to hold Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at email@example.com.