Death of a Trailblazer

ORLANDO, Nov. 17-18, 1979 — It was at the Republican state convention in Florida, with its straw vote on presidential favorites for 1980, when I first met two men I would come to know well over my next 26 years as a political reporter: Michael Reagan and Carroll Campbell. Reagan, then a small-businessman in Southern California, and Campbell, in his first term as a congressman from South Carolina, were at the convention center to drum up support for Michael’s father Ronald Reagan in the first step of his winning run for the presidency. (Reminiscing on Mike Reagan’s nationally syndicated radio program during Radio America’s 20th anniversary celebration earlier this month, the talk-show host and I noted photographs from Orlando show us both smoking. Mike kicked the habit on Guy Fawkes Day 1988 and I followed suit in 2002.)

Campbell became a conservative leader in Congress from 1978-86 and the second Republican governor of the Palmetto State in 1986. He was re-elected with 70% of the vote, with his coattails pulling in the largest number of Republican elected officials in state history. Along with Sen. (1954-2002) Strom Thurmond, Campbell was the most significant figure in transforming South Carolina from a “solid South” Democratic state into a modern Republican bulwark.

These were some of the memories I recalled about Carroll Campbell upon learning of his death at 65 on December 7. Movie-star handsome, with nary a hair out of place and always oozing self-confidence, Campbell had been out of sight the last few years as he courageously battled Alzheimer’s Disease.

Like Thurmond and conservative Democrat James Byrnes (who was senator and governor of South Carolina and U.S. secretary of State), Campbell was a major player in presidential politics but passed over for national office himself. He helped swing his state’s GOP convention delegation to Reagan in 1976, oversaw Reagan’s primary win in ’80 that helped wrap up the nomination for the Californian. The support of then-Gov. Campbell was key to the pivotal 1988 GOP primary win of George H.W. Bush, whose campaign was managed by Campbell ally Lee Atwater. As a former governor in ’00, Campbell guided George W. Bush to a similar primary triumph.

As longtime Campbell top aide Warren Tompkins told me, “Timing is everything in politics and the sun, moon, and stars just didn’t align.” The elder Bush passed Campbell over as a running mate in ’88 (when he had less than two years of service in the statehouse and had a Democratic lieutenant governor) as did Bob Dole in ’96 (with Campbell’s job as lobbyist for the American Council of Life Insurers considered a political negative).

A fast-food store owner and real estate broker, Campbell served in the state house of representatives from 1970-74 and then lost a close race for lieutenant governor. He bounced back to win a state senate seat in ’76 and, two years later, went to Congress from the 4th District (Greenville-Spartanburg).

His eight years as governor were, as Tompkins recalled, “years of consistent, conservative, and exceptional leadership.” He steered his state through a recession, Hurricane Hugo, and Operation Lost Trust, the “sting” operation that led to the arrest of 18 state legislators. Campbell oversaw $240 million in tax cuts, $22 billion in new capital investment in South Carolina, and the creation of 250,000 new jobs. He also developed a prenatal medical program that cut the state’s infant mortality rate by 12.5%. He streamlined state government by consolidating 79 state agencies into 17 cabinet departments.

Carroll Campbell left politics and his state far different because of his influence and was, as even his enemies would agree, a man of much consequence.