Laments on the Demise of Tom Turnipseed

Laments on the Demise of Tom Turnipseed

By Frye Gaillard

Vol. 4, No. 4, 1982, p. 31

I hated to see it a few weeks ago when ole Tom Turnipseed went up in flames. Turnipseed, of course, was a candidate for lieutenant governor of South Carolina, who lost a primary runoff to Mike Daniel.

Daniel may make a terrific lieutenant governor. Turnipseed might have been a disaster. But it seems to me that his demise–and there are those who predict this was his last campaign–is part of the depressing homogenization of modern politics.

In both North and South Carolina, we’ve always had our mavericks. Today, they’re still around in the form of Thurmond, Helms and East, but the color and the flair are not what they could be.

Helms and East are mostly just peculiar–stodgy ideologues with kamikaze instincts.

Thurmond may still be wrestling with Reconstruction–a quaint anachronism in 1982–but he’s gotten so pragmatic about it that he even voted to extend the Voting Rights Act.

Turnipseed is different. As a South Carolina state senator in the late 1970’s, he was dapper and charming, outrageous and impolite–affronting his legislative colleagues by, among other things, appearing with a couple of disc jockey buddies on the floor of the Senate and singing country songs about rising gas prices.

He was a brilliant rock-thrower with some self-destructive tendencies–declaring a war he couldn’t win on special interest groups, particularly utilities, and on a semi-corrupt system of legislative seniority.

But it seems to me that Turnipseed’s importance goes beyond the dash and color of his quixotic crusades. He made, I think, an ideological pilgrimage that’s not uncommon in the South.

As it happened, he grew up on the same street that I did. He was older, and I didn’t know him until later. But when you’re from Mobile, Ala., raised in privilege in the dappled shade of live oaks, amid people who regret the outcome of the Civil War, you’re apt to see the world in strange colorations.

You’ll have a strong sense of privilege, of your own special place near the center of things. And unless you’re extremely lucky, blessed with a quirky and aberrational understanding of fairness, you’ll also be a racist.

It’s easy and natural for sons of the Old South, and neither Turnipseed nor I escaped the maladies of our birthright. But chances are also strong that one day it will hit you, often with a shattering suddenness, that you’re hideously wrong about the things that you believe.

A way of life that seemed easy and genteel and supremely civilized becomes abruptly horrifying, and you develop a tendency toward reverse social climbing–toward a compensatory identification with the underdogs around you.

I became a newspaper reporter with a righteous impulse to write about injustice. Turnipseed became a populist politician, a champion of have-nots, whose stridency, in the end, was his undoing.

He was once the campaign manager for Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace. But the truth finally hit him in South Carolina and he tried to build a coalition of blacks and whites–of ordinary people victimized by the institutions around them.

He campaigned against the death penalty, rising utility prices and legislative apportionment plans that effectively excluded blacks. None of those causes are easy ones to win, and Turnipseed’s ratio of success was not impressive.

He was angry and shrill, and even some of the people who agreed with him finally wished he’d go away. He tried to change his style for his last campaign, but it was apparently too late.

So he lost.

That’s a shame, however, because politics can do with a little more passion. And particularly so when that sense of being right comes, as Turnipseed’s did, from a deeply felt knowledge of what it means to be wrong.

Frye Gaillard is an editorial page writer for the Charlotte Observer, where this article originally appeared.