In the 32 years they shared a desk in the U.S. Senate, Joe Biden became close with South Carolina’s Fritz Hollings.
Their relationship offered “a glimpse of his soul, his intellect, his love for his family and his love for his state,” the former vice president told mourners at Hollings’ funeral on Tuesday.
Many senators ably represent their home states, Biden said Tuesday, but “few embody their states the way Fritz embodied South Carolina.”
Biden’s remarks came before former S.C. governor and U.S. Sen. Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings was buried in his hometown of Charleston on Tuesday after a public funeral in the Summerall Chapel at The Citadel, Hollings’ alma mater.
It was a somber farewell to Hollings, a World War II veteran, state lawmaker, lieutenant governor, governor and U.S. senator for almost 40 years. He passed away at his Isle of Palms home on April 6 at the age of 97.
Funeral speakers recalled Hollings’ wit and dedication to public service.
Biden recalled how Hollings strove to leave the country a better place. After seeing poor South Carolinians go hungry, he co-sponsored the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children — popularly known today as “WIC.” He also fought ocean pollution by helping create the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Hollings “started the Green New Deal in a way before anyone thought of it,” Biden said, referencing the ambitious environmental legislation proposed by U.S. House Democrats.
Hollings was mourned Tuesday by his political rivals as well.
In his eulogy, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster recalled his 1986 challenge for Hollings’ U.S. Senate seat.
“I was one of the few intrepid souls to challenge Fritz Hollings,” McMaster said. “In his unbroken string of seven election victims, I was the fifth.”
Hollings’ first joined the Senate after a 1966 special election. He went on to win six full terms until he retired in 2004.
When McMaster challenged Hollings to take a drug test during a 1986 debate, Hollings shot back, “I’ll take a drug test if you take an IQ test.”
To McMaster’s chagrin, that quote has been repeated “in every book of political quotes since 1986,” he said Tuesday.
But the governor said that campaign was a learning experience, as well as an honor “to share the stage with one of the greatest men South Carolina ever produced.”
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, framed his eulogy around the poetic line, “Thank God a man can grow.”
He noted that early in Hollings’ career, he was added to South Carolina’s legal team defending the state’s segregated schools.
But by the end of his term as governor from 1959 to 1963, Hollings was pushing for the admission of Clemson University’s first African American student, Harvey Gantt.
“We have run out of courts,” Hollings told the General Assembly. “We are a government of laws, and not of men.”
Hollings’ stance is credited with South Carolina avoiding the worst violence seen in states like Alabama and Mississippi, where governors resisted integration.
“He peacefully integrated Clemson,” Clyburn said. “Why? Because a man can grow.”
Clyburn said he was surprised when Hollings later asked him to sponsor legislation taking his name off the Charleston federal courthouse. Instead, Hollings wanted it named after J. Waties Waring, the federal judge whose rulings helped strike down segregation. In 2017, Biden spoke at the dedication of a statue of Hollings at the courthouse.
Biden’s appearance Tuesday came as he considers a presidential campaign in 2020. The former vice president has longstanding ties to the early primary state of South Carolina, including frequent vacations on Kiawah Island.
In 2003, Biden also delivered the eulogy for Hollings’ longtime colleague, the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, who traded the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman’s gavel with Biden.
Hollings launched his own bid for president in 1984, eventually losing the Democratic nomination to former Vice President Walter Mondale.
Asked by reporters after the service if he plans to run, Biden offered only the enigmatic answer, “I’ll consult with Fritz.”