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What’s a ‘Good Old Boy’ to you?

MORE THAN THREE decades ago, I saw a “B” movie that was a sort of poor cousin to “In the Heat of the Night.” It was about a newly elected black sheriff in a racially divided Southern town, and the white former sheriff, played by George Kennedy, who reluctantly helps him.

At a climactic moment when the two men seem to stand alone, a group of white toughs who had earlier given the sheriff a hard time show up to help. Their leader gruffly says that they’re doing it for the sake of the old white sheriff, explaining that, “You always was a good old boy.”

Or something like that. Anyway, I recall it as the first time I heard the term “good old boy.”

It got a good workout later, with the election of Billy Carter’s brother to the White House. But the first time I recall hearing it used prominently as a pejorative by a Southerner was when Carroll Campbell ran against the “good old boy system” in the 1980s.

The usage was odd, a fusion of the amiable “good old boy” in the George Kennedy/Billy Carter sense on the one hand, and “Old Boy Network” on the other. The former suggests an uncultured, blue-collar, white Southerner, and the latter describes moneyed elites from Britain or the Northeast, alumni of such posh schools as Cambridge or Harvard. Despite that vagueness, or perhaps because of it, the term remains popular in S.C. politics.

Which brings us to Jake Knotts, who represents District 23 in the S.C. Senate.

Jake — pronounced “Jakie” by familiars — could have been the prototype for that George Kennedy character, had Hollywood been ready for something with a harder edge. He is a former Columbia city cop who by his own account sometimes got “rough.” He offers no details, but a glance at his hamlike hands provides sufficient grist for the imagination. According to a story said to be apocryphal, he once beat up Dick Harpootlian for mouthing off to him. (The mouthing-off part gives the tale credibility, and longevity.)

After Jake was elected to public office, he further burnished his “rough” reputation with a legislating style seen as bullying by detractors, and tenacious by allies.

This newspaper’s editorial board has always been a detractor. You see, we are high-minded adherents of the finest good-government ideals. Jake’s a populist, and populism is common, to use a Southern expression from way back. In our movie, we’re Atticus Finch to his Willie Stark. (See To Kill A Mockingbird and All the King’s Men.)

We were against video poker; Jake was for it. We were against the state lottery; Jake was for it. We were for taking the Confederate flag off the State House dome; Jake was against it.

We were for giving the governor more power over the executive branch; Jake was against it.

In 2002, we endorsed a candidate for governor who agreed with us on restructuring, and didn’t seem like anybody’s notion of a good old boy. He styles himself as the antithesis of back-slapping, go-along-to-get-along pols, to the extent that he doesn’t go along or get along with anybody.

That’s fine by the governor, because his style is to set forth an ideological principle, see it utterly rejected by his own party, and then run for re-election as the guy who took on the good old boys.

Jake’s notion of the proper role of a lawmaker isn’t even legislative; it’s helping — he might say “hepping” — constituents on a personal level. This can range from the unsavory, such as helping out a voter charged with a crime, to the noble, such as paying out of his pocket for an annual skating party for kids who’ve gotten good grades.

Jake’s slogan is “for the people,” as simple an evocation of populism as you will find. To him, the proper role of the elected representative is to make sure government “heps” regular folks rather than working against them.

That means he will take a bull-headed stand against the concerted effort to undermine the one aspect of government that does the most to help regular folks — public schools.

This brings us to what caused us to do something we thought we’d never do — endorse Jake Knotts, the sentinel of the common man who doesn’t give two figs for what we think the proper structure of government should be.

We’re endorsing him because he stands against the Old Boy Network (see how different these terms are?) of wealthy out-of-state dilettantes who don’t believe in government hepping folks at all, and want to make our state a lab rabbit for their abstract ideology.

We are not comfortable with this. We’ve had some terrific arguments about it on our editorial board. It was not one of your quick decisions, shall we say.

Occasionally, when we have a really tough endorsement in front of us, I quietly call a knowledgeable source or two outside the board, people whose judgment I trust, to hear their arguments.

On this one, I talked to three very different sources (one Democrat, two Republicans) who shared values that had in the past caused us to oppose Jake. All three said he had won their respect over time. All said he was a man you were glad to have on your side, and sorry to go up against. All three said that between Jake and his opponent who is backed by the governor and the Club for Growth and the rest of that crowd, they’d go with Jake.

Not that they were proud of it. All three spoke off the record — one got me to say “off the record” three times. I complained about this with the last one, saying it was all very well for him to urge us off-the-record to endorse somebody on-the-record, and he said all right, he’d go public.

It was Bob McAlister, Carroll Campbell’s chief of staff back in the late governor’s glory days of fighting “good old boys.”

“I don’t agree with Jake on a lot of issues,” Mr. McAlister said, but “at least you don’t have to wonder where he stands on anything, because he’ll tell you.” In the end, “There’s a place in politics for his kind of independent thought.... I think Jake Knotts has served his constituents well.”

In his own staid, doctrinaire-Republican kind of way, I think Bob was saying he thinks Jake is a good old boy.

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