Cindi Ross Scoppe

From the archives: Mr Intensity not ready for a letdown

A Reagan Republican from the get-go: Henry McMaster poses for a photo with then-President Ronald Reagan, who named him US attorney for South Carolina.
A Reagan Republican from the get-go: Henry McMaster poses for a photo with then-President Ronald Reagan, who named him US attorney for South Carolina.

Originally published May 21, 1990

They were the glory days for the U.S. attorney’s office, the heady days of constant excitement and exposure for Henry Dargan McMaster, the days of Operation Jackpot.

Drug traffickers, afraid of being rounded up and put away, turned themselves in. More than 100 went to jail. More than $18 million in drug- tainted assets was seized. The early war on drugs gathered headlines left and right.

“Every time we opened the door, we set new records,” the 42-year-old McMaster recalls from his Palmetto Building office in his father’s Columbia law firm.

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“The word got out,” he says of the high-profile crackdown on drug dealers that became synonymous with his four-year term as U.S. attorney. “We’d arrest people, and they’d tell us, ‘The word is out. Don’t go to South Carolina.’ “

Jackpot is the accomplishment of which McMaster is most proud. Five years later, he still hopes to capitalize on it and win his first elective office — a hope that didn’t materialize in 1986, when U.S. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings trounced him.

McMaster unabashedly manages to work Jackpot into every speech, every interview, nearly every casual conversation.

Perhaps more importantly, he is turning his record as U.S. attorney into the centerpiece of his campaign for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor: Two of McMaster’s three major themes in the campaign remind the voter of that record.

He will meet Charleston Sen. Sherry Martschink in the June 12 primary. The winner takes on Lt. Gov. Nick Theodore in November.

As fondly as McMaster remembers it, though, Jackpot has always had its detractors. To many, even to some who were part of it, Operation Jackpot was nothing but a big show, produced to stroke the ego of a flamboyant glory seeker with higher political ambitions — Henry McMaster.

McMaster suggests that his critics ask the jailed drug dealers whether it was a PR campaign.

Fresh out of law school in 1973, McMaster took the Republican rite of passage, working a year for Sen. Strom Thurmond in Washington. After seven years with his father’s law firm, McMaster was nominated by Thurmond hand appointed U.S. attorney by President Reagan.

“I was in the news all the time,” he says. “Couldn’t get away from it. My policy was to answer any question the press had. That was my personal policy.”

As U.S. attorney, he displayed a propensity for bluffing.

“Part of our method was to let the criminals know that dragnet was out there and convince them to come in and confess because they thought we knew about them,” he says of Jackpot. “And they did that.”

Criminals he had never heard of came in, sure they were about to be caught, McMaster says. The same thing happened when McMaster held a news conference announcing that he would prosecute 200 people who defaulted on college loans unless they came forward by the end of that week.

Not all of McMaster’s high-profile cases were successes, however. When he ran a food stamp fraud sting operation that resulted in the indictments of 32 people, he failed to land the biggest catch, Sen. Theo Mitchell.

Mitchell, a Greenville Democrat now running for governor, was indicted on a charge of illegal possession of food stamps, allegedly given him by a man as payment for money owed Mitchell, an attorney.

Mitchell said the case, one of few personally prosecuted by McMaster, was politically motivated. It ended in a jury mistrial.

Out of the U.S. attorney’s office, McMaster hit the road, taking on Hollings. His losing effort picked up the eternal devotion of grass-roots Republicans, who saw him as the only person with the guts to take on the senator, and the ire of party regulars, who never wanted him running to begin with.

Some of that dislike for McMaster remains today among high-profile Republicans, who see him as an unelectable hot dog.

Critics — most of whom don’t want their names used because they’re trying to maintain the facade of neutrality in the race — say he is a political opportunist, concerned merely with being elected to office. Any office.

“I believe that Mr. McMaster is not a servant of the people but rather a user of the people for his own political aggrandizement,” says Vinton D. Lide, who succeeded him as U.S. attorney and who stumps for Sen. Martschink. “One example would be his taking credit for Operation Jackpot.”

Political cartoons in 1986 showed McMaster changing his mind over and over — did he want to run for governor, for lieutenant governor, for the Senate?

Friends say that’s ridiculous.

“Henry has been out there in the trenches doing the party development kind of work, raising money for the state party, being equally interested in talking to Republicans in Dillon as he would be talking to Republicans in Greenville,” says Gene McCaskill, a Camden grocer who ran McMaster’s 1986 Senate campaign.

Oran Smith, third vice chairman of the state Republican Party, sees McMaster as a conservative ideologue in the mold of Reagan. And that, to him and other young Republicans, more than offsets the fact that McMaster has never been elected to office.

“He sees from the outside these things that need to be done, and has this passion and ideology he wants to bring to the office,” Smith says. ‘’It’s the same kind of situation (as Reagan) I think, where you’ve got an ideological candidate. Experience is not as important, if you think you can trust someone to keep the flame, to hold to the conservative beliefs.”

Henry McMaster was born May 27, 1947, in Columbia.

John G. McMaster Jr. recalls that his son was a precocious child who had a .330 batting average in Little League baseball and stood — arms out to the sides — on the seat of a tricycle to ride it down a hill near their King Street home.

“He would get on that dadgum tricycle and stand on it and come down the hill,” the elder McMaster says. ‘’I never saw anything like it.”

When Henry was 4 or 5, the family moved to Spring Lake Road, where he was the second of five brothers growing up across the street from the 13th hole of the Forest Lake Club’s golf course.

The child, and later the adolescent and young man, bore little resemblance to the hard-line conservative courting the religious right that McMaster was to become.

He got into trouble more than once for setting fire to vacant lots nearby.

In high school, his attention turned from school work to girls and cars.

After one summer at a military academy, he was shipped off to Patterson School, a boarding school in Lenoir, N.C., where he played football, did chores and was surrounded by boys who read all the time.

He rediscovered social life at the University of South Carolina, where in addition to making the dean’s list, honor society and law review, he became president of Kappa Alpha fraternity.

That’s where he “puffed” marijuana. Exactly what effect it had on him is unclear. McMaster told a reporter recently that he didn’t know whether he had gotten high because he was “drunk as hell” at the time.

“He was obviously a fun-loving guy, and he would let his hair down like the rest of us from time to time,” says Jimmy Knight, a Columbia attorney who roomed with McMaster in college. “He was not nearly as conservative then as he is now, especially from a political standpoint.”

Although he calmed down after college, a brief stint in the U.S. Army Reserves and law school, the other side remained. As U.S. attorney, he once dressed in a gorilla costume and paraded around the office in it.

“He ran up and down the hall, kissing all the women, running all over the place,” says Kayren Taylor, who has worked for him since 1982.

He jokes now that he “had to give up liquor when we started campaigning.” He still plays rock music — particularly of the Bob Dylan variety — on his guitar. He’s even played with Rod Shealy, the bad-boy campaign strategist and brother of Sen. Martschink.

“I guess people just think of him as always in a dark suit and a white shirt,” says Peggy McMaster, whom he met in Washington and married in 1978. “That is him. He’s just a gentleman, and he likes to dress like that. But then when he gets home he likes to dash upstairs, put on his khakis and tennis shoes and get down on the floor with the bulldog and baby.”

In some ways, though, none of it has been out of character with the man who bases his campaign on putting drug dealers to death. McMaster has always been conservative — compared with the people around him.

“He was probably a little more mature than the rest of us,” Knight says. s “I guess maybe from the standpoint of his being president of the fraternity, he sort of took the position seriously, and he did a good job of . . . trying to keep us in line.”

Ask Henry McMaster what he wants to do as lieutenant governor, ask him how to make things better for families, ask him anything, and he’ll find a way to spout out the same answer, fingers up to tick off “one, two, three” — “Abolish parole, death penalty for drug kingpins, ban on out-of-state waste.”

If one of those is his favorite, it’s probably the death penalty.

“The beauty of it — and this is where the fun is,” he begins, brown eyes flashing, “you’d have a drug kingpin sitting in Florida saying, ‘I have never been to South Carolina, I don’t know South Carolina, but if any of my boys go to South Carolina, I’m gonna be prosecuted, and I’m gonna be executed.’ “

He wanders slightly off the subject, onto a lengthy, graphic tale about a friend who was brutally murdered. He describes the way her body was found, mutilated.

“I can’t stand criminals,” he says, the kind of passion in his voice that even politicians can’t manufacture. “I’ve seen enough misery and abuse. I see people all the time that are hurt or abused by these criminals.”

Talk about waste that’s shipped into South Carolina, and his slow Southern drawl picks up. “I cannot talk about it without getting mad,” he says. “Great gosh, I get upset.”

Perhaps one of the best words to describe McMaster is “intense” — a fast-paced, non-stop kind of “intense” that leaves no doubt who’s in charge.

Family vacations at his parents’ Pawleys Island beach house are more work than play. Last summer, he spent four days repairing storm damage to the boardwalk near the house — work that had already been done, but not to McMaster’s satisfaction.

“His form of relaxation is not just lying in the sun,” Peggy McMaster says. ‘’He’s usually got to be doing something. It’s either sleeping, just solid sleeping, or working.”

He talks in quick, disjointed, excited sentences and long, detailed explanations.

He comes prepared to an interview with dozens of pictures of his children, 2-year-old Henry D. and 8-month-old Mary Rogers, his wife, his 72-pound English bulldog, Tuscarora John Barnwell (TJ), and other family members.

“I don’t get to spend much time with anybody other than my family,” he says. “Kind of sad.

“That’s one good thing about this law firm — it’s my daddy and three of my brothers. It’s like a little family reunion.”

Friends describe McMaster as a perfectionist and a hard worker. He has to have a completely clean desk before he starts on a project.

Ms. Taylor, director of development and client development at the law firm, says McMaster has a way of making everyone feel comfortable. She learned about that as a college student looking for a job in the U.S. attorney’s office.

“I had no idea it was the Justice Department,” she says. ‘’He started talking, and he put me at ease, and I guess that interview ended up about 45 minutes to an hour, and he right there on the spot offered me the job.”

On a letter holder in his office are the words, “Do it now.” He keeps a list of things to do, in priority order, and starts each day by tackling the tasks at the top of the list. At the end of the day, important tasks that aren’t done go to the top of the next day’s list. Unimportant work gets pushed aside.

“Henry is a go-getter,” McCaskill says. “He’s a self-starter. He does not deal well with procrastination on the part of others.

“Henry has a little philosophy that everybody associated with him knows. First, it’s aim high. Then, it’s write it down. He makes everybody write it down. The third one is, do it now.”

McMaster’s belief, repeated often, is that if you get a good idea and tell people about it often enough, it’ll happen. That’s his approach to the lieutenant governor’s office, a largely ceremonial position he wants to transform into a bully pulpit.

“You throw it out there,” he says, pointing to the new statewide grand jury, an idea he proposed in 1985, three years before it caught on. “If you’re in a position to keep pushing, it’ll happen faster.”

Ms. Scoppe wrote this when she was a reporter. She now writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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