Praise pours in for highly respected, retiring reporter

asheinin@thestate.comOctober 21, 2013 

Aaron Gould Shenin, formerly of The State, now a politcal reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Editor’s note: This story was published on Sunday, Dec. 24, 2006

On Aug. 1, 1966, Lowcountry Congressman Mendel Rivers gave a speech in the U.S. House that by today’s standards would be considered a racist tirade.

On Aug. 2, 1966, a story about the Democrat’s speech appeared in The State newspaper on Page 5A. Rivers would die in office four years later.

Forty years after that speech, few probably remember Rivers’ address from the well of the House and even fewer remember the newspaper article describing it.

But the story is notable today because it was the first written for The State by Lee Bandy .

Bandy, 71, will retire at the end of the month after 40 years with the newspaper. Bandy’s last day in the newsroom was Friday; he’s on vacation this week.

While he’s ending a brilliant career as a reporter, Bandy will continue to write his weekly political column for The State, adding to the estimated 3,000 weekly installments he’s written since 1966.

Bandy has long been a fixture in national and state politics. From 1966 until 1990, he covered Washington and the S.C. congressional delegation for The State from Capitol Hill, mostly from the Senate Press Gallery.

In those days, Bandy was known as the “unofficial mayor of the Senate Press Gallery,” said veteran Washington political columnist David Broder of The Washington Post. “He was one of the personages that one met when you started working up there,” Broder said.

The State newspaper was family owned at the time. After Knight-Ridder purchased the paper in 1986, Bandy gained a new managing editor, Paula Ellis. But Ellis had known Bandy for years.

“I’m from D.C., and in the summers you apply for internships,” said Ellis, now a vice president with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. “One of the internships you wanted was The State newspaper’s because Lee had such longevity he took long vacations and, two, because he covered such a powerful delegation.”

While a student at the University of Maryland, Ellis applied to be Bandy’s intern. “I was rejected,” she said.

Later, Ellis was working for Knight-Ridder when it bought The State. Bandy went to work in the company’s Washington bureau, “and lo and behold ‘Bandit’ has to report to me,’“ Ellis said.

The two became close co-workers and closer friends. Ellis witnessed firsthand Bandy’s effect on the business of Washington -- even if she rarely saw him.

“Great reporters should not be seen in the office,” she said. “They should just file (stories). I would never care if I saw a reporter. I just care if I saw a blockbuster story, and you could count on Lee for that. He could -- and still can -- pull any information out in the middle of the night.”

After more than 24 years in Washington, Bandy agreed to move to Columbia and continue his reporting.

Ellis preceded Bandy to Columbia and, in 1991, was managing editor of The State.

“I transferred Lee to Columbia for a host of reasons,” she said. “One, the primary reason being that I thought the South Carolina press corps would benefit from knowing and seeing him at work. Because for all the reasons I said: He was an excellent reporter who knew how to work a beat and he had never worked in South Carolina.

“And,” she said, “I thought it would be a nice lifestyle (for him). But I did it first and foremost for the newspaper.”

‘His source was the president’

With the move, Bandy went from being a force in Washington journalism to a legend in South Carolina.

“The South and South Carolina have been home to larger-than-life political figures and society-changing political issues over the past half-century,” said Mark E. Lett, executive editor of The State.

“Throughout, Lee Bandy’s keen skills and common sense have put the politicians and the issues in clear and appropriate focus for newspaper readers. For more than four decades, Lee’s work has been distinguished by his ability to speak the truth to power and to speak the truth about the powerful.”

Working out of the newspaper’s Shop Road office, Bandy became a must-see for nearly every state and national politician with eyes on a bigger prize.

Bandy’s rise to prominence in the state mirrored the state’s rise on the national political campaign scene.

As the state Republican Party began to host one of the crucial presidential primaries, Bandy’s desk became a common stop for candidates.

As the S.C. Democratic Party carved out a similar spot on its presidential primary calendar, its candidates made similar pilgrimages.

Not all of them came to the newsroom, however. Some preferred more casual stops. This fall, for instance, U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 Democratic nominee, met Bandy for milkshakes at Adriana’s in Five Points.

That kind of access has produced memorable stories, some of which have made the newspaper, some of which have not.

A good example came in the spring of 2001. Bandy is a member of the Gridiron Club, a prestigious group of Washington reporters. Its membership is never larger than 65, and the group’s annual dinner is a spectacle of skits and irreverence. The sitting president usually attends, and in 2001 President George W. Bush was there. So was Bandy

Decked out in the required black tails and white tie tuxedo, Bandy approached the head table where Bush was sitting. The president spotted Bandy and called him over. After a few minutes of chitchat, Bush told Bandy: “You know, I want your speaker of the House to be my ambassador to Chile.”

Bandy recognized the importance of the news: The president wanted S.C. House Speaker David Wilkins, R-Greenville, to represent the United States in a key South American country.

Returning to Columbia the following Monday, Bandy informed his editors. He placed a call to Wilkins, saying a “source” had told him that Wilkins was the president’s pick.

“I told him his source was crazy, wrong, didn’t know what he was talking about,” Wilkins recalled this month. “Bandy told me his source was the president.”

Wilkins eventually turned down that job but took another presidential appointment in 2005. He now is U.S. ambassador to Canada.

Because of the Gridiron Club’s rules that everything said is “off the record” — meaning the comments cannot be attributed — Bush’s role in the story never made it into the newspaper. Bandy’s story appeared March 27, 2001. It quoted a “senior administration official” as saying Bush wanted Wilkins for the job.

‘My mother ... got so ... mad’

Bandy ’s relationship with the people he covers is not always so cozy. He has built a reputation for being tough but fair.

“I often disagreed with him, but I always respected him,” said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Bandy’s retirement marks “an end of an era,” Graham said. “Lee has seen and done it all, and he goes out with a good name, a solid reputation.

“I have known him from my first day running for Congress until now, and I can say that he upheld the best tenets of the First Amendment. He told it like he saw it. I hope everybody in South Carolina understands the impact he’s had on our political process.”

Former U.S. Rep. Butler Derrick, D-S.C., first met Bandy when the congressman arrived in Washington in 1974. Bandy lived on the same street, and both had young children who played together.

“He’s not there just to get a story,” said Derrick, now a Washington lawyer with Nelson Mullins. “He’s thoughtful about what he writes. He got to know the people and gain their respect.”

Still, Derrick remembers a time when not everyone in his family was happy with Bandy.

Bandy was working his way through the congressional delegation, writing profiles of each member.

When he wrote the piece on Derrick, “he said in there that I liked martinis. Which is true,” Derrick recalled. “My mother read the article, and she got so damn mad at him for putting it in the paper.”

The late Strom Thurmond dominated S.C. politics during the 40 years that Bandy covered it. Thurmond, who died in 2003 at age 100, usually referred to Bandy as “old man Bandy.”

Thurmond and his family always had a complicated relationship with the media, especially as Thurmond grew older and questions were raised about his fitness for office and about Thurmond’s racial views of the past.

Strom Thurmond Jr., an Aiken attorney, said Bandy’s work was never in question.

“Lee’s columns have been widely read for many years,” Thurmond said. “His insights and instincts in South Carolina and national politics are irreplaceable, and his departure leaves a crater in South Carolina media’s knowledge of government.”

The family of another legendary S.C. politician is equally laudatory. Mike Campbell, son of former congressman and Gov. Carroll Campbell, said Bandy met his father when he was in the Legislature but their relationship grew when Campbell went to Washington in 1978.

“My mom (Iris) kind of took Lee under her wing and took care of him when they saw each other in D.C.,” Mike Campbell said. “But there was always a mutual respect for each other.

“That’s not to say there weren’t times when dad — and particularly my mom — wanted to wring his neck over some stuff he had written in the paper, but there was always a friendship there. Dad knew he could always pick up the phone about any issue and call Lee.”

In 2001, the Campbell family discovered its patriarch had Alzheimer’s disease.

“There was never any question of who we were going to give that story to,” Mike Campbell said. “There was such admiration there.”

Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian was a local prosecutor when he ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 1994.

“Lee was pretty tough on me,” Harpootlian said, “and I deserved it.”

Harpootlian, who went on to serve as state Democratic Party chairman, said Bandy and former U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., had “a special relationship.”

“Hollings would just chew on his ass and poke fun at him,” Harpootlian said. “And Lee ... could take it and dish it back out.”

Efforts to reach Hollings were unsuccessful.

‘No one has become president ... without crossing his path’

Bandy ’s impact goes deeper, however, than lasting relationships with the powerful.

Harpootlian said Bandy’s work directly affected the 1974 South Carolina governor’s race that helped birth the state Republican Party empire.

William Jennings Bryan Dorn and Pug Ravenel had squared off for the Democratic nomination, at the time tantamount to ultimate victory. Ravenel prevailed in the primary but was disqualified by the courts over a residency issue. Dorn was given the nomination, and Republican Jim Edwards won the general election.

Bandy “brought the spotlight of scrutiny to what was going on, and he could analyze it in a very insightful way,” Harpootlian said.

Francis Marion University political scientist Neal Thigpen has known Bandy for four decades and is a frequent source in Bandy ’s reporting.

“What do they say about a journalist? That a journalist is supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? He’s always been, to me, the epitome of that,” Thigpen said. “A lot of Democrats and Republicans don’t like him because he tells the truth.

“But you’ll never be able to know precisely where he stands with regard to his own views. His wife once told me she doesn’t know how he votes because he’s that careful to keep his own views to himself.”

Former Gov. David Beasley, a Democrat-turned-Republican, wisecracked recently when asked to comment on Bandy’s tenure.

“Has anybody said anything good about him?” Beasley joked. “I’ll say something good about him if it’s off the record.”

Beasley said he has known Bandy for 28 years.

“What do you say about Lee Bandy?” Beasley said. “No one has become president of the United States without crossing his path in 40 years, and no one has had an impact on South Carolina government that hasn’t dealt with Lee Bandy.”

Former President George H.W. Bush is one of those presidents.

In a statement released earlier this month as news of Bandy’s retirement spread, Bush said, “I have great respect for Lee Bandy, one of the best journalists I ever met. Throughout his distinguished career, Lee set the bar very high with political coverage that was tough, but fair — and always perceptive.

“I wish him well in his retirement and thank him for his many contributions to his profession, to his state, and to our nation.”

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