South Carolina’s Last Democratic Senator: Fritz Hollings

South Carolina really outkicked its coverage in influence in the 20th century. They had an epic powerhouse in Jimmy Byrnes, and had a highly influential senatorial duo in Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings. I already discussed the first two, so its Hollings’ turn.

Ernest Frederick Hollings (1922-2019), commonly known as “Fritz”, got his start in politics all the way back in the 1948 election, when he ran for the South Carolina House of Representatives and won. In this time, he was, like Governor Thurmond and other politicians of his state, a segregationist. Hollings voted for Thurmond over Truman in that election as well, although he would praise Truman later in life. However, also like Governor Thurmond, Hollings was a reformer. He quickly gained the respect of his colleagues and in 1950 he drafted an anti-lynching law that prescribed the death penalty for the crime.

In 1954, he won the post of lieutenant governor and in 1958, was elected the state’s governor. Although Hollings pledged resistance to Brown v. Board of Education during the election and in 1962 the state legislature and Hollings agreed to place the Confederate battle flag flying below the US and state flag atop the Capitol Dome, he proved a moderating influence. By the end of his term on January 9, 1963, Hollings realized the inevitable and pleaded with the legislature to accept court orders for desegregation and for the first black student to Clemson University, declaring, “The General Assembly must make clear South Carolina’s choice, a government of laws rather than a government of men” (The Hollywood Reporter). The tone set by Hollings was of great help in the state mostly avoiding civil rights era violence. In the previous year, he had challenged Senator Olin Johnston for renomination, but the incumbent won. However, for Hollings, just like with Johnston against “Cotton Ed” Smith, the second time would be the charm. By 1966, Johnston was dead and he was running against interim incumbent Donald Russell. Hollings prevailed in the primary and after facing the toughest challenge of his career in Republican Marshall Parker, he started his long Senate career.

The Record of Fritz Hollings

Hollings’ first two years in the Senate marked him as a conservative, and he voted with other Southern Democrats on matters of race. He voted against the confirmation of Thurgood Marshall in 1967 and against fair housing in 1968. Hollings would also during the Nixon Administration oppose the Philadelphia Plan and vote against extending the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, he would vote for the Equal Employment Opportunity Act in 1972, strengthening the anti-discrimination protections in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and would vote to extend the Voting Rights Act in 1975 and 1982. This was a quicker pace of change than that of his Republican colleague, Strom Thurmond. Hollings remained opposed to busing as a means for desegregation. He had a good working relationship with the man he once supported for president, and Thurmond multiple times tried to recruit him to his side of the aisle. According to him, Thurmond would say, “Hell, just change parties with me. We’ll get you the consultants, we’ll get you the pollsters, we’ll get you the money. You won’t have to do anything” (Carlson).

The Environment

In 1970, Hollings played a major role in the establishment of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and would be involved in the passage of major environmental legislation for coastlines and the oceans. However, he had an overall mixed record on environmental legislation. While he supported the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in 1973, he also opposed permitting drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Hollings on Foreign Policy

Hollings was neither a hawk nor a dove on the Vietnam War; he voted for the Cooper-Church Amendment in 1970 cutting off funds for Cambodia operations, but voted against the McGovern-Hatfield “End the War” Amendment that same year. Interestingly enough, on foreign policy generally he was largely hawkish and on one occasion even out-Reaganed Reagan: he was one of only five senators to vote against the INF Treaty and the only Democrat to do so. This hawkishness could also come out in his rhetoric. In response to Japan’s prime minister negatively commenting on American work habits in 1992, Hollings stated to a group of American workers, “You should draw a mushroom cloud, and put underneath it, ‘Made in America by lazy and illiterate Americans and tested in Japan'” (Anderson and Binstein). Despite this, Hollings was also amenable to cutting military spending at times and he voted to give away the Panama Canal.

Hollings and Welfare and Education

Hollings strongly supported food stamp programs, supporting efforts to increase funding and opposing any efforts to limit the program. He wrote a book in 1970 called The Case Against Hunger, which outlined his views on the role of the government in feeding people. However, he drew the line at providing food stamps for people on strike. Hollings was generally a defender of programs that could be viewed as being part of, or extensions of, the New Deal. He opposed any efforts at altering Social Security that would put it in a market direction. However, Hollings did support overhauling welfare overall and providing block rather than categorical grants for it. Although a strong supporter of public education funding and against private incursions, he voted for requiring schools to allow voluntary prayer.

Presidential Run and Budgetary Efforts

In 1984, Hollings ran a rather unconventional campaign for the Democratic nomination. He blasted candidates Walter Mondale and John Glenn and ran to their right: he campaigned on raising taxes and cutting spending in the name of balancing the budget. In short, he didn’t do well. On the day Hollings dropped out of the campaign he said, “I was selling castor oil” (Carlson). He would make an effort in the next year to reduce the deficit.

In 1985, Hollings sponsored with Senators Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) an act placing binding constraints on federal spending. After the mechanism for determining cuts was found an unconstitutional usurpation of executive powers by the Supreme Court in Bowsher v. Synar (1986), Gramm-Rudman-Hollings II was adopted in 1987 with an alternative mechanism. This law proved insufficient at preventing budget deficits, and although there was a balanced budget seen with the Clinton Administration and a Republican Congress, this gave way to more spending after 9/11. Although a fiscal conservative, Hollings was quite good at steering federal money to South Carolina, and this was part of what got him to continue winning reelection in an increasingly Republican state.

Hollings and the Supreme Court

The record of Fritz Hollings on Supreme Court nominations alone would make him a difficult fit in today’s Democratic Party. In addition to the aforementioned vote on Thurgood Marshall, he also voted for controversial Nixon nominees Clement Haynsworth, G. Harrold Carswell, and William Rehnquist. Hollings was even one of only two Democrats to vote for Robert Bork in 1987 and followed up with a vote for Clarence Thomas in 1991. His closest counterpart today on the issue of the Supreme Court would without question be Joe Manchin.

Hollings and Social Issues

Hollings’ record was mixed on abortion, with the pro-choice NARAL giving him a 43%. While supporting banning “partial-birth” abortion multiple times, he rejected a number of other restrictive measures, such as prohibitions on abortions on military bases and a federal law prohibiting the harming of an unborn fetus during the commission of a crime. He was also a supporter of the death penalty, repeatedly voting against restricting it. After all, Hollings had found the threat of the death penalty useful in deterring lynchings in South Carolina.

Economic Populist

Hollings was fiscally and often socially conservative during his career, but on economic policy he was populistic and no fan of trade agreements or deregulation. He also voted against the first round of Reagan tax cuts, known as Kemp-Roth, in 1981. Hollings also routinely voted against Republican proposals for tax reduction and was opposed to decontrolling the price of oil. He voted against President Ford’s unsuccessful attempt to do so as well as President Reagan’s successful effort. In 1993, Hollings voted against NAFTA, but so did his Republican colleague, Strom Thurmond. Indeed, he opposed most trade agreements, voting against free trade between Andean nations, Chile, and Singapore and against normal trade relations with China. Hollings did, however, support normal relations with Vietnam.

Acid Tongue and Gaffes

Senator Hollings was sharp-tongued and sometimes this led to politically incorrect gaffes. He once referred to Senator Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), who was Jewish, as the “senator from the B’nai B’rith” and referred to supporters of the presidential campaign of Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) as “wetbacks” (Hollywood Reporter). In 1993, he traveled to Switzerland for international trade agreement talks. Afterwards he said, “Everybody likes to go to Geneva. I used to do it for the Law of the Sea conferences and you’d find these potentates from down in Africa, you know, rather than eating each other, they’d just come up and get a good square meal in Geneva” (Los Angeles Times). Hollings also referred to President Clinton as “unpopular as AIDS” in South Carolina. His last opponent, Republican Congressman Bob Inglis, he called “a goddamn skunk” and told him to “kiss my fanny” (Carlson). Lindsey Graham, who served with him for two years, defended him. He said of him that he was an “equal-opportunity basher…My Democratic friends have been scorched by that tart tongue as much as the Republicans” and went on to state, “I think people appreciate his independence. He would say something like that and people say, ‘Well, that’s just Fritz.’ He’s a larger-than-life character” (Carlson). His targets often took his barbs in stride…Bob Inglis, his last defeated foe, even held at the end of the campaign that he personally liked Hollings. Hollings’ attitude could be characterized as “no nonsense” and this was reflected in his oft-repeated campaign motto, “performance is better than promise” (Hartsook).

The Senator From Disney

Senator Hollings was known both for receiving a lot of campaign contributions from the entertainment industry and sponsoring legislation for them, particularly regarding copyright protection, that he became known as “the senator from Disney”.
Hollings survived four tough reelection bids, and his final colleague, Lindsey Graham, stated his view on his survival, “He’s tough as nails, and he would fight back unapologetically. And he always delivered for the state as an appropriator, so even if people disagreed with his stands, they figured he was a value-added product” (Carlson).

The Bush Administration and Retirement

Hollings served in his last four years with the Bush Administration. After 9/11, Hollings was involved in drafting legislation to strengthen airport security. He was mostly opposed to the Bush Administration’s initiatives. In 2001, Hollings opposed his nomination of John Ashcroft, and cited as a reason his belief that his former colleague’s religious beliefs disqualified him from serving as attorney general. He regarded George W. Bush as the worst of the presidents he served with, stating of him, “Well, it’s easy to rate who’s the most inadequate. And that’s the present president. Jesus! He doesn’t want to be president. He just likes the politics. He likes to get elected. He likes Air Force One. He starts out nearly every day with a fundraiser. He appears at some police station or some fortified something with policemen and firemen. You know, you gotta get the right pictures for the 7 o’clock news. Then he comes in and works out and sees a movie and goes to sleep. And he allows Condoleezza and Cheney and Rumsfeld to run things” (Carlson). Although Hollings had voted for the Iraq War, he soon became a critic. In 2004, he stated on the Bush Administration’s approach, “Israel long since would have taken us to the weapons of mass destruction if there were any or if they had been removed. With Iraq no threat, why invade a sovereign country? The answer: President Bush’s policy to secure Israel.
Led by Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Charles Krauthammer, for years there has been a domino school of thought that the way to guarantee Israel’s security is to spread democracy in the area” (Hollings). This commentary was highly controversial.

In 2004, Hollings opted to retire, seeing the direction of the state politically as well as not wanting to become decrepit in office as he had witnessed in his longtime colleague. He stated on the matter, “I’ve seen ’em. I’ve seen Sparkman falling asleep in his seat. I’ve seen others the same way. Poor Strom in his wheelchair. . . . You lose your effectiveness. I’ve been elected seven times, and now it’s time to go home” (Carlson). Hollings also condemned the influence of money on politics on his retirement.

What to Make of Fritz?

Although Hollings started his career conservative and ended it more on the liberal end of things, he was on the whole moderate. On some real bread and butter issues, such as the death penalty, busing, welfare payments, and balanced budgets, he was conservative, but he was also liberal on some key bread and butter issues like opposing income tax cutting if part of it was benefiting the wealthy, opposing any market incursions into public education and Social Security, the environment, and supporting food stamps to the hilt.

Hollings was in truth the sort of Democrat who has become increasingly scarce nowadays. The regions that used to support his sort have become some of the strongest Republican areas and some of his remarks today would be downright cancelable. In 2008, he authored with journalist Kirk Victor Making Government Work, a part memoir, part advocacy book in which he condemns trade agreements and regards campaign financing as at the root of American political problems. He states, “Once spending in campaigns is limited, the big boiler room of party politics in Washington will fade, and congressional politics addressing the country’s needs will take over…. Congressmen and Senators can go to work for the country rather than the campaign. Government will work again” (Daniel).

On his death in 2019, future President Joe Biden stated, “Fritz Hollings was a good man. A patriot who fought for this country in uniform and elected office. A friend who lifted me up when it mattered the most early in my career, and taught, as he’s done for generations of South Carolinians, how to live a life of purpose and service”.


Anderson, J. & Binstein, M. (1992, October 1). Sen. Hollings and His Revisionist Image. The Washington Post.

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Carlson, P. (2004, October 14). The Nitty-Gritty Senator. The Washington Post.

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Daniel, M. (2010, February). Daniel on Hollings and Victor, ‘Making Government Work’. Humanities and Social Sciences Online.

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Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, Former U.S. Senator. (2019, April 6). The Hollywood Reporter.

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Fritz Hollings on the Issues. OnTheIssues.

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Hartsook, H.J. (2016, April 27). Hollings, Ernest Frederick “Fritz”. South Carolina Encyclopedia.

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Hollings, E.F. (2004, May 6). Bush’s failed Mideast policy is creating more terrorism. Charleston Post and Courier.

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Hollings Remark on African Leaders, Cannibals Assailed. (1993, December 16). Los Angeles Times.

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