Gizzi on Politics: July 2-6

Ravenel Round-Up

Two weeks ago, South Carolina State Treasurer Thomas Ravenel had everything going for him. Movie-star looks, magnetic personality, wealth and a good family name. The son of former Rep. (1986-94) Arthur Ravenel (R.-S.C.), he was the “young man for tomorrow” to Palmetto State Republicans. In 2004, spending much of his personal money on his maiden political race, the Charleston-area real estate developer placed second in a four-candidate primary for U.S. senator and then lost the run-off to three-term Republican Rep. (and present Sen.) Jim DeMint. Two years later, Ravenel roared back and was elected treasurer with ease. When former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R.) signed the 44-year-old state treasurer on as his state campaign chairman for the ’08 presidential primary, it was considered a major coup for the New Yorker. Pundits and pols considered Ravenel the early favorite to succeed Republican Gov. Mark Sanford, who can’t run again, in 2010.

All that was thrown on the junk heap of history last week, when Ravenel was indicted on federal cocaine charges. Ravenel, whom Gov. Sanford promptly suspended as treasurer, was charged with buying less than 500 grams of cocaine for friends in 2005. Distribution of cocaine carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $1 million.

The investigation that led to Ravenel’s headline-grabbing indictment began as a routine drug case under the aegis of the state Law Enforcement Division. However, South Carolina agents eventually turned the probe over to the FBI because Ravenel, who is in charge of handling state financial institutions, was involved, Law Enforcement Division Chief Robert Stewart told reporters.

“He’s in pretty bad shape, you know. He’s got a drug problem,” Arthur Ravenel said of his son in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. “We suspected it.”
With young Ravenel poised to turn himself in July 9, the hottest topic in the state is what other people the fallen political star will finger. Rumors of cocaine use at the highest levels in the state have been rampant for years. Last November, the Charleston City Paper ran an eye-popping interview with an anonymous 25-year-old cocaine dealer at the Republican victory party in Columbia, which featured Ravenel, other statewide officials and numerous TV and print reporters.

“The dealer said he had already made $400,” reported the City Paper, “and that he’d chosen the Republican social event over a Democratic one because, for him, historically speaking, he said he could calculate a better return for his investment.”

“It’s never helpful when one’s associate is indicted,” nationally syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker, herself a South Carolinian, wryly remarked to me, adding, “but the effect on Giuliani, if any, will be short-lived, I’m told.” “Also short-lived, apparently,” she said, “will be the glee with which other campaigns have exploited Ravenel’s fall. Let’s just say, Ravenel wasn’t partying alone. The buzz, so to speak, is that Ravenel will be making some big decisions about who goes down with him.”

Vander Jagt’s Mighty Voice Is Stilled

Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2007: “Why, hello, John. How are things at Human Events?” The greeting from the man who passed me at Café Milano in Georgetown during lunch was very familiar. Former Rep. (1965-92) Guy Vander Jagt (R.-Mich.) had always greeted me the same way in the 28 years we had known each other. In his familiar baritone voice, he was gracious to my luncheon companions (in this case, Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Cory Stewart and political consultant Erin DeLullo). He updated me on his wife Carol and daughter Virginia and inquired about my wife, a fellow Michiganian (“I knew her before you did!”). Then Vander Jagt moved on to his luncheon guest.

Little did I know that this would be the last time I would see the former TV newscaster who addressed thousands of campaign and party events as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee from 1974-92, delivered the keynote address at the 1980 Republican National Convention without notes or teleprompter (“If you were trying to talk some girl into marrying you, you wouldn’t need notes”), and who even a rival for power in Congress hailed as “the best damn speaker in the House.” After a brief battle with pancreatic cancer, Vander Jagt died at 75 on June 16.

The son of a farmer in Cadillac, Mich., Vander Jagt grew up wanting to be a minister and earned a divinity degree from Yale University, where he studied under Richard Niebuhr and William Sloane Coffin. But he changed his mind and finished his law degree at the University of Michigan. The young Vander Jagt had won several prizes for orations in high school and worked summers as a TV anchorman on WWTV, using as his sign-off a line similar to Fulton Lewis, Jr.’s: “That’s the top of the news from the top of Michigan.”
After a few years as a radio disc jockey and host of a weekly TV program, Vander Jagt won a state senate seat in 1964. When Rep. Robert Griffin (R.-Mich.) was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1966, Vander Jagt won his House seat by the largest margin of any of the 59 Republicans elected to the House that year.

While Vander Jagt served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and later on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, he found his true calling in Congress when he became head of the NRCC following the disastrous “Watergate Year” election of 1974. Taking over the campaign committee at a time when Republicans held barely a third of the seats in the House, the hard-charging Vander Jagt spoke in almost any district nationally where there was a GOP candidate — never using a text and connecting with audiences through his strong voice. Along with being an aggressive fund-raiser, the man NRCC staffers called “VJ” was active in recruiting candidates. In 1978, he helped persuade two-time loser Newt Gingrich to make a third (and triumphant) race for Congress from Georgia.

Vander Jagt was at first a moderate Republican in the mold of close friend Jerry Ford, and his American Conservative Union rating in 1971 was 58%. But he gradually moved to the right, and in his last year in Congress (1992), his ACU rating was 92%. In 1980, with the support of most of the freshman Republicans elected to the House on Ronald Reagan’s long coat-tails, Vander Jagt ran for House Republican leader. He lost, however, to GOP Whip Bob Michel (Ill.) by a vote of 103 to 87, in part because Michel had held the No. 2 position in the leadership hierarchy and many Republicans at the time were unwilling to disrupt the order of succession.

Although years of jetting across the country as NRCC chief helped other Republicans win House seats, Vander Jagt himself would pay a stiff price. His long absences from his House district were roundly attacked in 1992 by a little-known primary foe, Pete Hoekstra. In a bad year for incumbents of both parties, Vander Jagt lost to Hoekstra, who holds the seat today.

It is a sad irony of history that, after so many years of toiling in the vineyards to see Republicans rule the House, Guy Vander Jagt missed serving in a GOP-run House by two years. But to the many he helped get to Congress who are still there and to the many others he helped who didn’t make it (among them George W. Bush, a losing U.S. House candidate in Texas in 1978) the vibrancy, energy and mastery of the spoken word of the gentleman from Michigan will never be forgotten.