The decline of the American empire: An expert witness’s account

Senator Ernest F. Hollings’s recently published autobiography, Making Government Work, is wise, well-written, and consistently absorbing.

Rarely has Senator Fritz Hollings used his renowned wit to more devastating effect than when he was interviewed in 1990 on the ABC program, This Week with David Brinkley. Some weeks earlier he had reportedly bought a bargain-priced Korean-made suit on a field trip to Seoul. Given his role as a leading critic of Korean dumping in the American textile market, the alleged purchase was the sort of trivia that passed for news in some quarters. Although Hollings had arrived at the ABC studio expecting to talk about the federal government’s worsening budget deficits, the interviewer Sam Donaldson lost no time in getting to the nub of the matter: whether or not Hollings was at that moment wearing the notorious suit.

“Senator,” Donaldson said, “you’re from the great textile-producing state of South Carolina. Is it true you have a Korean tailor.” Before Hollings could respond, Donaldson pressed on: “Let’s see the label in there. What is the label in there?”

“I bought it,” Hollings replied, “the same place right down the street where, if you want to personalize this thing, you got that wig, Sam.”

The entire studio erupted. The blustery — and bewigged — Donaldson had had, if not his head handed to him, at least his tonsorial codpiece. But he was to exact a terrible revenge. Although Hollings had previously been a favorite on the program, Donaldson made sure that the courtly Southern Senator (and a man who still sports a full head of hair — all evidently securely attached to its owner) was never invited back. Hollings had insulted a vain and not overly intelligent member of the new aristocracy of Big Foot media interviewers and for punishment he would be cast into outer darkness.

In Making Government Work, an autobiographical account of the steadily worsening problems that have engulfed the American political system in the last six decades, Hollings tells this anecdote as an illustration of how America has lost its way. Politicians, he writes, “are failing people because journalists too often are in the business of pursuing sideshows and not looking at the big picture.” His point is, of course, irrefutable. But there is a deeper moral here that Hollings is too polite to state explicitly: while, by the standards of his trivia-obsessed profession, Donaldson might claim to have been within his rights in bringing up the alleged purchase, his insulting tone was utterly inexcusable. No decent person should have been addressed in such a way. That a member of the U.S. Senate should be so addressed bespeaks a degree of decay in the American body politic that bodes ill for the entire future of American democracy.

In dissecting what has really happened to the American empire since its zenith in 1945, Hollings enjoys an unrivalled command of his material. Few if any political actors have played at such a high level for so long. A life-long Democrat, he was elected to the South Carolina legislature in 1948, became governor in 1958, and entered the U.S. Senate in 1966.

Hollings’s place in history rests on his leadership role in addressing three of the most serious policy problems of the era — the federal budget deficits, the trade deficits, and the depradations of the K Street lobbying system. Readers of this book will not be disappointed in the space he allocates to each.

Hollings is perhaps best known for his efforts to rein in the U.S. budget deficits. He had been a budget hawk since his days as governor of South Carolina and in the U.S. Senate in 1974 he hit the theme hard. He returned it to again in partnering two Republican Senators Phil Gramm and Warren Rudman in pushing through the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings balanced budget legislation of the 1980s. The legislation was severely weakened by a constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court. Remedial efforts have not worked because, in Hollings’s account, successive presidential administrations — Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II — have “brazenly violated the law.”

The soaring budget deficits have been a contributory factor in an even bigger and less tractable problem, the trade deficits, but the main cause of the trade deficits, as Hollings shows, is a fundamentally wrong-headed American trade policy. He identifies fellow Democrat Jimmy Carter as the President who did most to put the United States on the the course to industrial emasculation and ever-increasing foreign indebtedness. The basic problem is that the present policy is merely “one-way free trade.” America may open its markets all its wants but if other nations do not reciprocate, the net effect is that American industries bleed to death. With the American current account deficit now running consistently at around 5 percent of gross domestic product or more, the Bush administration has daily to go hat in hand to other nations, most notably China, to scrounge the finance to make ends meet. For somebody who remembers as clearly as Hollings does how things used to be, America’s predicament is truly unbelievable. In 1966, the year Hollings entered the Senate, America enjoyed a _surplus_ of 0.4 percent of gross domestic product. Indeed the United States did not incur a single deficit in the 1960s and trade deficits did not become “baked in” to the American economic structure until the Carter era.

Underlying the budget and trade problems is the lobbying problem. The Supreme Court again has much to answer for because, in the Buckley v. Valeo decision of 1976, it vitiated a major Congressional effort to stop dirty money polluting American democracy. Hollings is undoubtedly right that this ruling has not only utterly corrupted the American political process but has undermined the collegiality that once characterized the Senate. As Hollings points out, in earlier times when money played a less important role, Senators frequently spent the weekends in Washington and socialized with one another. That helped encourage a spirit of bipartisan cooperation in which Senators worked together — much of the time at least — in the national interest. These days they have no time anymore. They are on the road every weekend scrounging funds for their next campaign — and in any case they are too busy outdoing one another’s soundbites to focus on the sober task of legislating wisely.

While the policy issues provide the meat in this important book, many readers will particularly relish Hollings’s recollections of the fascinating personalities he has known over the years. He devotes a chapter, for instance, to the Kennedy family. Having met Robert Kennedy as far back as 1954, he forged a close relationship with the Kennedys that among other things resulted in his delivering his crucial anti-Catholic state to John F. Kennedy in 1960. Such was the degree of intimacy he enjoyed in the Kennedy circle that, as he records in this book, he more than once was treated to the off-color side of JFK’s wit.

He also has much to say about Robert Kennedy, whom he refers to throughout as Bob rather than Bobby. (Although that may seem slightly strange to the younger generation, Robert Kennedy generally styled himself as “Bob” in notes to friends. The press’s preference for “Bobby” appears to have been inspired by JFK.) The Fritz-Bob relationship was evidently generally very cordial. But JFK’s all-elbows younger brother more than once got Hollings’s dander up. One telling episode concerns Robert Kennedy’s run for the presidency in 1968. As a preparatory move, Kennedy decided to go on a tour of the nation publicizing some of the worst slums. One destination he planned to hit was in South Carolina — at least it was until word reached Hollings’s ears.

Hollings writes:

“As soon as I heard of Kennedy’s plans, I picked up the telephone and told Kennedy I was working to do something about hunger in South Carolina…..He responded that everything had been arranged. I didn’t understand the problem, he added….At that point I had had enough. ‘Now look here,’ I shouted. ‘You go down there there, and I am going to get on a plane and go straight up to Harlem [in New York state, which Kennedy represented]. I am going to call every TV station, and then I am going to walk right through Harlem for four or five days, everywhere I can, and find every rat eating every child’s eye out. And everywhere I go, I’m going to say why isn’t Kennedy here? I am going to have a New York hunger expose at the very time you have yours in South Carolina.'”

South Carolina was dropped from Kennedy’s itinerary.

Kennedy had learned what Sam Donaldson was to discover in 1990 — that Fritz Hollings is not someone to tangle with lightly.

Making Government Work is a wise, well written, and consistently absorbing analysis of the epochal crisis now facing the American nation.

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