More than a decade after South Carolina’s Fritz Hollings left the United States Senate, people still talk about how he would talk about things.
Whenever Hollings took the floor of the Senate to make a speech, staffers would often stop their day-to-day business and watch on the Senate’s internal television network to listen to what he would say.
“That’s like delivering lettuce by way of a rabbit,” Hollings could be heard when discussing something dysfunctional about government spending.
When a program had run off the rails, you’d likely hear “the ox is in the ditch.” You might wonder, “Where? Where is the ox in the ditch? Why did he say that,” before realizing, perhaps, that he was harkening to colloquial sayings from agricultural days to make a point.
And then there was the old classic standby: “That’s like the fireplug wetting the dog.”
Fairly frequently, you’d also hear about mules, specifically how there was no second education in the kick from one, or how he was tired of the shenanigans and “monkeyshines.”
With a rich baritone inflected with the mesmerizing Gullah sounds of his Lowcountry heritage, Hollings’ voice can charm or mince, depending on what he wants to accomplish. Staffers often didn’t know what would come out of his mouth.
After Hurricane Hugo, he called FEMA “a bunch of bureaucratic jackasses.” Frustrated with the Atlanta airport, he once told the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administrator, “If Sherman had had to go through that airport, we’d have won that damned war.”
During an internal policy debate, he once asked a staffer, “What the hell kind of law school did you go to?”
It was fairly easy to figure out when you were losing an argument, with Hollings asking, “How many times have you been elected to the United States Senate?” Or, “Son, when I was your age, I was governor. What do you know?”
And then there was the sentence I occasionally heard as a press secretary: “You don’t know from sic’ em.” I never knew what “sic ‘em” was, but I knew it was not something that was good. I also knew the conversation was over. And it was definitely over if you heard this: “Close that door … with you on the other side.”
On the campaign trail, Hollings, now 94, is remembered for some zingers. He told former GOP U.S. Rep. Tommy Hartnett during a debate that he was “full of prunes.” Current Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, who ran against Hollings in 1986 as a tough, young federal prosecutor, got this memorable retort after challenging Hollings to take a drug test: “I’ll take a drug test when you take an I.Q. test.”
It wasn’t only Republicans who were on the receiving end of Hollings’ barbs.
In 1990, broadcaster Sam Donaldson tried to zing Hollings, an avowed protectionist, at the end of the final segment of ABC’s “This Week” by asking whether he had a Korean tailor. “I think I got that suit — this is not the one — the same place right down the street where — if you want to personalize this thing — where you got that wig, Sam.” The show ended.
During a 1984 Democratic presidential primary debate, Hollings referred to fellow candidate Sen. John Glenn’s accomplishments as an astronaut by asking, “But what have you done in this world?”
Ouch. But Hollings hasn’t been shy about poking fun at himself, sometimes linking the white hair on his head to a Q-tip.
“People always wonder how [late wife] Peatsy and I stay together with so many divorces these days,” Hollings once said. “And a friend of ours used to say, ‘It’s simple. They have a lot in common. They’re both in love with the same fella.’”
One former staffer remembers the time when a Mercedes pulled up to a traffic light and Hollings rolled down the window and asked the other driver to do the same. He then asked, “Pardon me, but may I borrow your Grey Poupon?”
Storytellers and leaders like Fritz Hollings who serve government are a rare breed today. We need more of them. Not only do they inject a little much-needed humor into the increasingly dull and fractious world of politics, but they liven up any party.
If you’d like to read a compilation of 38 classic “Hollingsisms” compiled by his staff before Hollings retired in 2005, click here.