Incumbent U.S. Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings of South Carolina was running for re-election in 1986 when the Republican candidate Henry McMaster, a former federal prosecutor, challenged his 64-year-old opponent to take a drug test during a television debate.
“I’ll take a drug test,” Hollings snapped, “if you’ll take an IQ test.”
Hollings won the exchange, the debate, and the election.
The ability to deliver a sharp wisecrack that leaves a rival red-faced and speechless can be a potent political weapon. It can be used as a shield to fend off an opponent’s unwanted advances or as a bludgeon to injure an opponent.
Hollings, who died last year at age 97, used his wit as a bludgeon. His sense of humor is prominently featured in my forthcoming book “The Art of the Political Putdown.”
The Democratic presidential candidates who are currently campaigning in South Carolina for the state’s February 29 primary should read Hollings’ putdowns because whoever wins the Democratic nomination will face President Donald Trump in the presidential election.
To Trump, debating isn’t an exchange of ideas; it’s a blood sport. Trump didn’t comply with long-practiced decorum for debating during his presidential run in 2016. He mocked, taunted, and insulted those on the stage with him. He didn’t win any of the debates. But he won the election. Trump is likely to react the same way later this year when he debates the Democratic presidential candidate.
The Democratic nominee must be prepared to deliver lines that cut Trump to the quick, that reveal his bone spurs. If he or she is going to dethrone Trump, he or she needs to understand, as Hollings did, that you can’t go naked to a knife fight.
During Hollings’ own run for the presidency in 1984, he was debating the other Democratic candidates when U.S. Sen. John Glenn talked about how his accomplishments as an astronaut qualified him to be president.
When it was Hollings’ turn to speak, he turned to Glenn and said, “But what have you done in this world?”
It’s worth noting that Hollings did not win the Democratic Party’s nomination. But Hollings won more elections in his political career than most politicians. He served three terms in the state legislature, one term as lieutenant governor, one term as governor, and then served 38 years as a U.S. senator.
Hollings never won a Mr. Congeniality award. He told one opponent he was “full of prunes” during one debate and called another opponent “a damned skunk.”
There was something endearing about his Southern colloquialisms: “There’s no education in the second kick of a mule”; “That’s like the fireplug wetting the dog”; “He’s like the cross-eyed archer. He may hit the mark, but he’ll scare the hell out of everybody.”
There also was something endearing about him when he poked a finger in the eye of a pompous politician or broadcaster.
The diminutive U.S. Sen. John Tower of Texas puffed out his chest to show Hollings the expensive suit he had just bought.
“What do you think?” Towers gushed.
“That’s a nice suit,” Hollings snapped, “Does it come in men’s sizes?”
In 1990, ABC broadcaster Sam Donaldson, who wore a… toupee, tried to embarrass Hollings, who supported protection for US textile companies against foreign imports, by asking the senator if he was wearing a Korean suit. “If you want to personalize this thing, Sam,” Hollings said, “I got the suit down the street from where you got that wig.”