Politics & Government

Image problem? S.C. bleeds by its own hand

A prominent South Carolina Republican jokes that an escaped gorilla from Riverbanks Zoo was an ancestor of first lady Michelle Obama.

One of the state's congressmen shouts "You Lie!" to the president of the United States during a nationally televised joint session of Congress.

And then there is the governor.

Where to start?

He disappears, lies, reappears and, then, tearfully announces to the world that his "soul mate" is a woman other than his wife. His infamous Appalachian Trail lie and those jaw-dropping e-mail exchanges with said soul mate spawned a thousand late-night jokes.

No, it was not a good year to be a South Carolinian. And no one knows that better than South Carolinians, according to results from a Winthrop University poll of 837 people in the Palmetto State.

More than 60 percent of those polled earlier this month said the rest of the country had a somewhat negative or very negative opinion of South Carolina in general.

Nearly 68 percent of South Carolinians polled said the country's opinion of their state became less favorable over the past year.

"With (Gov. Mark) Sanford and all of that stuff, I believe that's affected the state's image," said Danielle Moore-Baker, a 30-year-old stay-at-home mom from Murrells Inlet. "I didn't live in South Carolina at the time, and I knew about it."

Certainly, the Sanford sex scandal was riveting fodder for political talking heads and late-night comedians. It even spawned a book by first lady Jenny Sanford, whose promotional tour put her on numerous national TV shows, serving as a sort of national reminder of the scandal.

But Mark Sanford wasn't alone in forcing the state to endure what could only be described as a political annus horribilis.

There was Rusty DePass, former chairman of the State Elections Commission, making that racist tie between the nation's first black first lady and a gorilla.

And there was U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a Springdale Republican, jabbing his finger in the air and barking at the president on national television.

"My view is that I believe as a gentleman I acted properly by apologizing within one hour," Wilson said. "The president accepted the apology. To me, that chapter is closed."

Asked whether he thinks the majority of his fellow South Carolinians think his outburst hurt the state, Wilson said: "I am very grateful as I travel the state and the country for the strong support I receive."


There are still plenty of smiling faces and beautiful places in the Palmetto State.

But many South Carolinians worry the state is seen as a racist throwback whose governor is going through a very public, very embarrassing midlife crisis.

Kara Borie, director of marketing and communications for the S.C. Department of Commerce, said businesses have not refused to move to the state because of its reputation.

"What we find is business decisions are made for just that - business," Borie said. "Their opinion of us is high. Our business climate is good."

But some of those charged with bringing individual students or employees to South Carolina say the state does have some baggage that has to be addressed when they make their pitch.

That baggage is often overcome, those recruiters say, once people visit the state or talk to a broad range of people.

"We've found that there are some people who do have a perception of what South Carolina is about," said John Beckford, who, as dean of faculty at Furman University, has helped the school recruit professors and researchers. "We've had to clarify some misconceptions about the quality of education their children would get, let them know we do have some cosmopolitan aspects to life here. We let them know we're not this sleepy, conservative state that's out of touch with the rest of the world."

The Winthrop poll found fewer than a quarter of those surveyed think the rest of the country has a somewhat or very positive image of South Carolina.


Scott Huffmon, director of both the Winthrop poll and the university's Social and Behavioral Research Laboratory, said popular culture - books, movies, television - have contributed to South Carolinians' sense that they and other Southerners are viewed as less than fully evolved.

"Forrest Gump" might be remembered as a funny and poignant movie. But Southerners, including Gump, often are portrayed as dim.

And HBO's "True Blood" might be a sexy, campy thrill ride, but, again, Southerners are portrayed as gullible hicks.

South Carolina is taking a sustained hit on YouTube, where more than 40 million people have viewed footage of 2007's Miss Teen South Carolina giving her comically botched response to a pageant question about why so many Americans can't locate the United States on a world map.

Miss Teen South Carolina: "I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because some people out there in our nation don't have maps, and I believe that our education, like such as South Africa and the Iraq and everywhere like such as and I believe that they should. ... Our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., should help South Africa. It should help the Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future."

Pageant host: "Thank you very much, South Carolina."

Type in "South Carolina" on YouTube and that pageant response is the first thing that pops up.

"We are regularly portrayed in movies and everything else as being ignorant and backward," Huffmon said. "We are just not portrayed that well by popular media."

The good news?

The governor's soul-bearing apology tour seems to be over.

Wilson has apologized for calling the president a liar, though he is still raking in the cash from those who, presumably, agree with his assessment.

And DePass hasn't made any more public jokes about the first lady.

But that doesn't mean 2010 is off to a rip-roaring start.

Another statewide officeholder, Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, had his personal e-mails to a woman he was seeing - a woman who is not his wife and who just happened to be running for statewide office - released to the media.

That mini-scandal didn't go viral.

But the year is young, and South Carolina's politicians have promises to keep and many miles to go before they - or anyone else in our scandal-weary state - sleep.

[Video] Satirist Jon Stewart: Thanks again, S.C.

Jon Stewart, Comedy Central's leader in fake news, has South Carolina in his cross hairs yet again, thanks to controversial comments gubernatorial candidate and current Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer made at a campaign stop about helping the needy.

Warning: Although "bleeped out", this clip does contain some profane references.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Thank You, South Carolina - Andre Bauer
Daily Show

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