I REMEMBER a time, not that long ago, when a gathering like this would have taken some doing to arrange. It probably would have been held in someone’s home. At night. Maybe, maybe in a darkened, out-of-the-way restaurant. But certainly it would have been clandestine.
I was sitting in a circle surrounded by retired and active National Guard officers, generals and colonels, and they were talking about the evils of electing the adjutant general. It’s a conversation I’ve had many times over the years, though not with more than a couple of people at a time, and usually even the retired ones didn’t want their names used, for fear of … well, I’m not sure what. But it was always clear what the fear was for those still on active duty.
On this day, a colonel recalled the year he was “counseled” by his commanding officer not only about how he should vote in the upcoming election but also about how much money he should donate. I had heard rumors of such things before, but this was the first time I had ever heard it from someone who experienced it.
A general referred to the “purges” that occurred after the elections, when people who had donated to the wrong candidate — or perhaps simply hadn’t donated — saw their careers end. Several of my other companions nodded knowingly.
But this was not a secretive meeting. It was held in broad daylight, the bright afternoon sun streaming in through the windows in the office of my host, Major Gen. Bob Livingston, the last man who will ever be elected South Carolina adjutant general.
I was there to receive an award for the work I did over the years helping convince first the Legislature and then voters to change a system that, Gen. Livingston noted, we’ve had since the formation of South Carolina’s National Guard in 1670.
A system that, as retired general and retired State editorial page editor Tom McLean noted, had somehow produced a string of very good adjutant generals. In spite of itself.
A system that, come January 2019, will be relegated to the history books, replaced with one that allows our part-time soldiers and airmen to concentrate on being soldiers and airmen rather than having to worry about how to navigate the electoral politics of what is supposed to be a meritocracy.
It’s easy to get discouraged by the slow pace of change in South Carolina. Even when monumental change occurs, it’s easy to take a quick moment to celebrate but then go right back to fretting over all those things that aren’t changing. And then forget the significance of what just happened. Or even that it happened.
So this gathering presented a useful opportunity to remind me, to remind all of us, of what a huge step our state took toward modernity in 2014, when the Legislature finally agreed to let voters change the South Carolina Constitution so the governor could select the adjutant general, as governors do in the other 49 states. And voters did, overwhelmingly.
This change did not happen overnight. Several of the men in Gen. Livingston’s office had been working on it for years. Our editorial board took up the cause a quarter century ago. But something big happened in 2013: The adjutant general decided we needed to change. And that made all the difference.
Bob Livingston was elected adjutant general in 2010, and re-elected in 2014. His term ends in January 2019, and at age 62 he will retire, so the governor can appoint a new leader. That, he says, is the way it’s supposed to work in the military. Left unsaid is the fact that his predecessor stayed on the job until he was 72, eight years after the federal government stopped recognizing him as a general.
Gen. Livingston says he came into office with an open mind about whether South Carolina should continue to have the only publicly elected military leader in the free world. But he realized that it was wrong to ask Guard members to make campaign donations to their superior — and dangerous to allow them to believe that success could be based on anything other than merit. He also recognized that our nation’s increasing reliance on the National Guard as a fighting force has made it imperative that the adjutant general is up to the job — which you cannot ensure through election.
So one of the first things he did in office was to appoint a study committee to look at the pros and the cons of the current system and the pros and cons of alternatives. Everyone on the committee agreed that we needed to have minimum qualifications for the job — which many believe would be unconstitutional for an elected position.
Although half the members wanted to keep the elective system, the weight of the evidence supported appointment, by far, Gen. Livingston said.
So he went to work lobbying the Legislature to make that change. And in so doing, he changed history.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.