The tragedy of what might have been
Pug Ravenel died last month. He was 79. Most people in South Carolina today don’t know who he was or what he did, but they should learn.
Pug and his life epitomize the triumphs and tragedies of what is and what might have been for South Carolina.
Full disclosure: I worked for Pug for almost two years when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1978. I was a true believer.
Pug’s life story is a combination of Camelot and Greek tragedy. It’s the story of a golden boy who had it all, one who held the future in his hands and saw it all turn to ashes.
Charles Dufort Ravenel was a son of South Carolina. He was born with a historic Huguenot last name that epitomized Charleston as much as pluff mud or shrimp and grits. He grew up doing all the things a young boy did in Charleston, but he was different. He had something special, and everyone knew it.
As a young boy playing baseball on the Moultrie playground, he got a nickname that stuck with him for life. He ran into a telephone pole and broke his nose.
He delivered newspapers and went to Bishop England High School, where he was a star athlete. He won a scholarship to Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, which launched him into a life in the rarefied air of Harvard elites, Wall Street wealth and White House connections.
At Harvard, he was a star at football and everything else he did. Upon graduation, he won a Corning Glass Fellowship that let him travel the world studying national economies. His travel buddy was John D. Rockefeller IV. He returned to Harvard for an MBA, then to one of the hottest firms on Wall Street and a fellowship at the Treasury Department.
With his wife Molly Curtis and their three kids in tow, he moved back to Charleston in 1972. He had it all: smarts, charm, charisma, looks and wealth.
What came next is the story of what might have been.
In 1973, he announced for governor against a crowded field of traditional South Carolina politicians. It was the first election after Watergate and people wanted change, outsiders and hope.
Pug gave people that hope.
In an era of backslapping courthouse politics, he ignored the politicians and used television to talk directly to the people. He wrote a book about policy and ideas. He said to blacks, young people, women and those who were shut out, “Come join us.”
People responded in a tidal wave of support the politicians never saw coming and did not understand even as it broke over them. He won the Democratic primary going away.
But they struck back.
Pug had returned to South Carolina a short time before the election. In a provision spawned by reaction to the abuses of Reconstruction, the state constitution had a five-year residency requirement that the courts ruled Pug did not meet. He was leading his Republican opponent Jim Edwards in the polls by 38 points.
Pug was disqualified.
Thus began the path of politics that has led us to today. Edwards was elected, the first Republican since Reconstruction. Since then, seven of 10 governor’s elections have been won by Republicans. The state House and Senate have gone from solid Democratic to solid Republican.
The same pattern occurred across the South. This is not to say it wasn’t inevitable. It probably would have been, but the reality is that we missed something.
We missed a chance to take a different path, a path of racial acceptance, a commitment to people and not to politics.
As in Greek tragedies, our hero tried again with a U.S. Senate race in 1978 and a congressional race in 1980 but came up short in both. His moment had come and gone.
There was the further tragedy of a divorce, business failure and jail time for bank fraud. But there was something more. He touched a whole generation of South Carolinians who wanted more and were willing to work their hearts out to make it happen.
At what will certainly be Pug’s overcrowded funeral, you will see them. Their hair is now gray, their faces have lines, some are not here at all. But those who are will remember. They will remember a time when they were young, a time when they thought anything was possible.
The great tragedy of Pug is that he showed us something we had not seen before. He showed us what was possible, yet he could not take us there.
Let us not remember what was, but remember what might have been and hope the chance will come again for Pug’s beloved and broken South Carolina.
Phil Noble has a technology firm in Charleston, is co-founder of EnvisionSC and writes a weekly column for the S.C. Press Association. Contact him at email@example.com.