“It don’t make no difference how foolish it is, it’s the RIGHT way — and it’s the regular way. And there ain’t no OTHER way, that ever I heard of, and I’ve read all the books that gives any information about these things. They always dig out with a case-knife — and not through dirt, mind you; generly it’s through solid rock. And it takes them weeks and weeks and weeks, and for ever and ever. Why, look at one of them prisoners in the bottom dungeon of the Castle Deef, in the harbor of Marseilles, that dug himself out that way; how long was HE at it, you reckon?”“I don’t know.”“Well, guess.”“I don’t know. A month and a half.”“THIRTY-SEVEN YEAR — and he come out in China. THAT’S the kind. I wish the bottom of THIS fortress was solid rock.”
For some reason, I thought of that exchange between Tom Sawyer (the first speaker) and Huck Finn when I read Cindi Scoppe’s column Sunday about our long, Sisyphean struggle to get our state to adopt a more rational, accountable form of government.
Actually, it wasn’t a column exactly, but a repurposing of remarks she delivered upon accepting Governing magazine’s Hal Hovey-Peter Harkness Award for public service journalism. Remember, I mentioned this the other day.
Whatever you call the piece, it summarized our TWENTY-YEAR effort to change South Carolina government — one in which we’ve made some progress, although it would be pretty fair to say it’s the kind of progress you’d expect to make, digging your way out of a stone dungeon with a case-knife.
One thing I liked about the piece was that Cindi took the trouble to list the bad craziness that was going on in that summer of 1990, when it all started:
Twenty years ago, I had been out of college less than five years, and covering the S.C. Legislature as a reporter for less than two years, when my colleagues and I realized that we were in the midst of a governmental crisis:
• A tenth of the Legislature was or soon would be under indictment on federal corruption charges.
• Among the dozen other officials under investigation was the governor’s closest political ally.
• A separate FBI investigation was looking into bid-rigging at the Highway Department.
• The director of that agency had forced underlings to cover up a wreck he had in his state vehicle — and his bosses gave him only a gentle reprimand.
• That same director had himself refused to fire the Highway Patrol commander for personally intervening to get the top FBI official in the state out of a DUI charge.
• The larger-than-life president of the state’s flagship university had used public funds to secretly purchase lavish gifts for legislators for years while university trustees looked the other way.
I was the governmental affairs editor at the time, and I’ve told the story of what led us to do Power Failure over and over, but I always have trouble remembering all that stuff that was going on. All of those scandals were on my team’s turf, and we were doing a great job of staying ahead of the competition on all of them that summer (going nuts doing it, but still doing it), when one day Gil Thelen, doing his management-by-walking-around thing, plopped into a chair next to my desk and asked a blue-sky question about what it all meant? Was there a way to explain it all to readers, and give them some hope that the underlying problems could be reached. I said I didn’t know, but I’d think about it.
The result was the Power Failure series. The central insight was that NO ONE was in charge. And the thing that caused me to pull it all together was a series of three op-ed pieces written by Walter Edgar and Blease Graham. After reading that, I could see the direction we would need to take in explaining it to readers — something that eventually took well over 100 stories split into 17 installments in 1991.
Of all the reporters I had working with me on that opus, Cindi was the one who took it most to heart and was most dedicated to the ideas the project set out. Which was a large reason why I brought her up to editorial in 1997 — so we could continue the mission.
Cindi’s boiled-down version of the project’s conclusions:
• Consolidate agencies, and let the governor control them.
• Write real ethics laws.
• Dismantle the special purpose districts, and empower local governments.
• Release the judiciary from its legislative stranglehold.
• Adopt a rational budgeting process.
• And make the government more open to the public.
I enjoyed Cindi’s ending, which to me was reminiscent of the last graf of the introductory piece I wrote for the project. Here’s Cindi’s ending:
There’s a little state down South where we’re experts at putting the “dys” into dysfunctional government, and there’s an editorial writer down there who’s been struggling for practically her entire career to get people to buy into a few simple and obvious reforms. And she’s not gonna stop until they do it.
South Carolina is becoming less like its old self. An increasingly wary public is tired of being ripped off. Things that weren’t expected to happen under the old way of doing things — such as judges and senators getting indicted — are happening, because law enforcement agencies won’t play ball anymore.
And neither will the newspapers.
What makes them alike? That braggadocio, that personal statement of “I’m on your case now, and I’m not backing down.” (in my mind, I wanted something that would sound to the readers’ ear like the schwing! of a sword being drawn from a scabbard.) Some of the old hands at The State took exception to that language, and other stuff I wrote at about that time, seeing it as too “arrogant.” Yeah, well — I felt like it was time somebody got out of their comfort zone. I felt like it was going to take a lot to blast the state loose from the deathgrip of the status quo.
And I was right.