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Ernest ‘Fritz’ Hollings, South Carolina senator and WWII veteran, has died

Longtime statesman known for his quick wit died Saturday at the age of 97

During an interview in his office in 1993, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., looks at a photo of himself with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. (Scott Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)
During an interview in his office in 1993, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., looks at a photo of himself with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. (Scott Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Ernest Frederick “Fritz” Hollings, a longtime statesman with a rumbling baritone known for a quick wit and as a champion of environmental and social policy, has died at the age of 97.

The South Carolina Democrat, who ran for president in 1984 and served in the Senate for nearly 40 years — most of his tenure as the junior senator to Republican Strom Thurmond — died Saturday after a period of failing health, The (Charleston) Post and Courier reported

“By any measure Senator #Hollings led one of the most incredible and consequential lives of any member of the Greatest Generation,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said Saturday on Twitter. “As the junior senator from South Carolina, he welcomed me to the Senate and helped me get established.

“And until his dying day, #FritzHollings was always advocating and urging for policies that would make our country strong,” Graham continued.

South Carolina GOP Gov. Henry McMaster on Twitter called Hollings “Fierce, bold, and robust.” The late senator also served a term as governor, from 1959 to 1963.

South Carolina Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham called Hollings “the most transformational leader our state has ever seen.”

“From his service as a soldier in World War II, a state legislator, Lieutenant Governor, Governor, and U.S. Senator, Fritz Hollings was a true statesman who exemplified character, courage, integrity, and honor,” Cunningham said in a statement.

An accomplished debater, Hollings was known for using historical anecdotes and humor to drive home his points.

“In an age when politicians consult opinion polls before uttering a word, Hollings says what’s on his mind,” a 2003 CQ profile reads. 

Hollings was a prominent player in most other important policy debates of his era, including civil rights, arms control, the defense buildup of the 1980s and the defense retrenchment of the 1990s.

He helped create many of the seminal environmental laws of the 1970s, and he was instrumental in the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Modern times, including the 9/11 terror attacks, brought new issues to the fore, but Hollings continued to appeal to a cross-section of voters in what had become a mostly Republican state.

At right, Robert Mueller, FBI Director, makes a statement at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing with Sens. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., foreground, and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., in the Capitol (CQ/RollCall file photo).
Then-FBI Director Robert Mueller, right, makes a statement at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing with Hollings, left, and Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., in the Capitol (CQ Roll Call file photo).

Hollings was born in Charleston in 1922 to the owner of a dry goods store who lost everything during the Great Depression. He attended public schools and graduated from The Citadel before attending law school at the University of South Carolina. 

He served as a captain in the Army in World War II from 1942 to 1945 and was awarded a Bronze Star.

In 1948, at age 26, Hollings won election to the South Carolina House. A decade later, he was elected governor.

Hollings espoused states’ rights in his run for governor and condemned school integration, but after his election, he quietly integrated the state’s schools.

He helped John F. Kennedy carry South Carolina in the 1960 presidential campaign as well as six other Southern states.

Hollings(r) John F. Kennedy (L) as Governor of South Carolina during the 1960 Presidential Campaign.
Then-Gov. Hollings escorts John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign.

In 1962, Hollings challenged Democratic Sen. Olin D. Johnston in a primary and lost.

Johnston died three years later, and Hollings narrowly won a 1966 special election for the remaining two years of his term. He won a full term two years later and rolled over weak opponents in 1974, 1980 and 1986.

In 1992, former GOP Rep. Thomas F. Hartnett challenged Hollings and portrayed him as an arrogant, entrenched incumbent, but Hollings won that race with 50 percent of the vote — 3 points ahead of Hartnett.

His 1998 re-election campaign encouraged his penchant for speaking out as bluntly as he pleased. Brushing aside a request by his opponent, GOP Rep. Bob Inglis, to pledge to run a courteous campaign, Hollings called Inglis a “goddamned skunk” and said he could “kiss my fanny.”

Hollings prevailed by 7 points.

Hollings was also a friend to former Vice President and Delaware Democratic Sen. Joe Biden. He advised Biden in South Carolina during his 2008 presidential bid. 

Tributes to the late senator rolled in Saturday as news of his death spread.

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