The Mental State

by Jason Zengerle | October 6, 2010

It’s a Saturday morning in mid-September and a reporter, cameraman, and soundwoman from Japan’s NHK TV are in Lexington, South Carolina. The town of 10,000 in the state’s Midlands region is hosting its first annual Oktoberfest parade, but the inaugural brats, beers, and oompah bands are not what have lured the trio to Lexington’s quaint Main Street. The Japanese TV crew is here to see South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson. A year ago, Wilson was just an anonymous Republican member of the House. Then, one night last September, as President Obama spoke about health care reform to a joint session of Congress, the congressman shouted the words that are destined for the third, and maybe even the second or first, paragraph of his obit: “You lie!” Suddenly, he was a political celebrity—denounced by liberals as a racist, hailed by conservatives as a truth-teller, and now, as he marches through downtown Lexington in search of votes, filmed by a Japanese TV network as an internationally known testament to South Carolina’s incredibly nutty politics.

From John C. Calhoun to “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman to Strom Thurmond, South Carolina has long been synonymous with political extremism. But, even by these historical standards, the past two years in South Carolina have featured an extraordinary bumper crop of embarrassments. If it wasn’t Governor Mark Sanford coining the term “hiking the Appalachian Trail” as a new euphemism for cheating on your wife, then it was Nikki Haley, the South Carolina politician who’s all but certain to succeed him, being forced to deny the claims of two men that she cheated on her husband. Meanwhile, South Carolina’s junior senator, Jim DeMint, has become a Tea Party darling for his support of Republican insurgents like Rand Paul, Sharron Angle, and Christine O’Donnell, but is loathed by some of his GOP colleagues in Washington who believe he’s cost them a chance to take back the Senate. And the less said about DeMint’s current Democratic opponent—the unemployed, indicted, and involuntarily-discharged-from-the-military Alvin Greene—the better.

The P.T. Barnum of this political circus is a 36-year-old blogger named Will Folks. In 2001, Folks was playing bass guitar in a Columbia bar band, when he wrote an op-ed on behalf of some friends who ran a tech start-up and were angling for inclusion on a state-sponsored technology task force. Sanford, then a congressman who was planning to run for governor, read the op-ed and asked Folks to come work on his campaign. Soon, Folks was the governor’s press secretary. “I didn’t know a damn thing about politics when I got into it,” he says. “I knew at the time that I thought all politicians were full of shit, but I was a freaking bar musician. When you’re in your mid-twenties listening to grunge, you’re not the young Republican type. And now eight years later, they’re more full of shit than I ever imagined they were.”

Today, Folks, who sports a shaved head and goatee, runs FITSNews, a website that chronicles South Carolina’s political madness—and has become a must-read for the state’s political class. One moment the site is breaking the story of a state senator purportedly using a government-funded competitive grants program to buy key legislative votes; the next it’s alleging that a prominent evangelical who sits on the state’s board of education is also the pseudonymous author of online pornographic fiction. On the morning that I meet Folks at a coffee shop in Columbia, he’s still basking in the glow of his latest scoop: pictures of the state senate president dressed up in a Confederate general’s costume alongside two African Americans in “antebellum” attire. “Everybody in the state knows the guy dresses up like a Confederate all the time, so it wasn’t surprising,” Folks says. “I think it was just the juxtaposition.” 

FITSNews’s biggest story to date—the one that, according to Folks, brought it a “shit-ton of hits”—was the one he wrote this past May about himself. Two weeks before the Republican gubernatorial primary, Folks claimed that he’d had “an inappropriate physical relationship” with Nikki Haley. Haley denied the charge, and the phone records and text messages that Folks offered as proof of their affair merely showed that the two had been in contact; but his accusation led to similar claims from another man. Strangely enough, the allegations actually seemed to help Haley, and she wound up winning the primary. Folks—who endorsed Haley—continues to insist he has incriminating e-mails from her that he has yet to release. He says he will use them in a book, which he’s now shopping around. “I don’t think it looks good for her,” he says. “I’m content to sit back and write my book, let people say what they say about it, and maybe by the time I publish my book, maybe she will be a national contender.”

One of the few South Carolina pols to maintain his dignity amidst all this insanity has been John Spratt. As the dean of the state’s congressional delegation, having first been elected to the House in 1982, he’s long toiled in the shadow of his more flamboyant colleagues. But his low-key nature and dogged work ethic have allowed him to build up significant influence on Capitol Hill, where he now chairs the House Budget Committee and is the second-ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. What he lacks in star power he more than makes up for in the real thing.

Now Spratt’s remarkable career appears to be nearing an end. At 67 years old, he was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and exhibits a slight tremor. More significantly, he’s facing a restless group of constituents in his upstate congressional district who appear poised to replace him with a Republican state senator and Tea Party favorite named Mick Mulvaney. “I’ve had tougher opponents,” Spratt tells me, when I catch him at a campaign rally at the civic center in the cotton-growing town of Bennettsville, “but none of them had the momentum like the momentum that’s building now, and that’s the advantage my current opponent has—that he’s riding the crest of a long wave.”

It’s a Friday night, and the crowd that has turned out at the civic center is solidly Democratic. But Spratt spends the bulk of his speech in a defensive crouch, trying to make the case that he and, by extension, congressional Democrats and the Obama administration are not to blame for the current economic mess. “Now you may talk about, we haven’t seen any jobs around here in this district, but think about the jobs that would have been lost without the recovery act,” he argues over the tinny PA system. “It would have been worse, far worse.” After the rally, Spratt almost seems resigned to his fate. “This is what I’ve wanted to do since I was in about eleventh grade,” he says, a valedictory note creeping into his voice.

Indeed, despite the efforts of Spratt and other Democrats, there isn’t much evidence that the state’s immediate future will be any saner than its recent past. At a Sunday fish fry for Joe Wilson’s Democratic opponent, I meet a woman named Mary Jeffcoat, who doesn’t even live in Wilson’s district but drove three and a half hours for the event. “After ‘You lie,’ I just felt like we needed to get Wilson out of the South Carolina delegation,” she tells me. “We’ve been the nation’s political punch line for too long.” Wilson, meanwhile, is a fairly safe bet to be reelected in November.

Jason Zengerle is a senior editor for The New Republic. This piece ran in the October 28, 2010, issue of the magazine.

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