It is a truism to note that H.L. Mencken, like his great vitriolic predecessor Jonathan Swift, was a thoroughgoing misanthrope.  So perverse was Mencken’s vision of human existence that he preferred to read King Lear as farce rather than as tragedy—since nothing, he was fond of saying, could be more farcical than death.  But if Mencken’s loathing for his fellow man prevented him from discovering some remnant of dignity in the antics of the intelligent ape, it made him one of our most acute observers of the American political scene.  “Mirth,” Mencken wrote in his “On Being an American,” “is necessary to wisdom. . . . Well, here is the land of mirth, as Germany is the land of metaphysics and France is the land of fornication.  Here the buffoonery never stops.”

The “buffoonery” that so regaled Mencken was of the unconscious sort, the buffoonery of those, especially in political life, whose grotesquely inflated sense of their own self-importance provides the rest of us with endless mirth.  (The honorable senator from Massachusetts is perhaps our most unadulterated contemporary American specimen of such buffoonery.)  Yet Mencken’s own satiric art was itself a kind of buffoonery, albeit of the wickedly honed and self-conscious variety, and one intended to remind us that, the moment we begin to take American politics too seriously, we join the parade of unconscious buffoons.  Thus Mencken would approve, I suspect, of Rep. John Graham Altman III (R—Charleston District 119), a politician who, for several decades of public life in South Carolina, has supped with the scribes and Pharisees with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Everyone in these parts remembers the “dress code” incident at the Statehouse in Columbia, when, during the 2001 legislative session, an overzealous clerk’s office in the House forbade female pages to wear blouses exposing cleavage or skirts more than four inches above the knees.  Shortly thereafter, a memo was released by a group calling itself the “Men’s Caucus,” instructing the pages to ignore the dress code.  Instead, “they should save valuable materials used in blouse construction” and consider undergarments strictly “optional.”  They were further encouraged to regard “the terms ‘babe,’ ‘honey,’ ‘sugar,’ and ‘little missy’ as compliments and terms of endearment.”  Although authorship of the Men’s Caucus memo remains a well-guarded secret, it is widely rumored that Representative Altman was one of the “handful of Republicans” responsible.  Of course, virtually all the Democrats in the House waxed apoplectic over the incident, obliging state Attorney General Charlie Condon to call for a State Law Enforcement Division investigation of the matter.  Well, that was a bit like using a pile driver to kill a fire ant.  The not-so-surprising upshot was that, six months later, the General Assembly was compelled to hold a sexual-harassment seminar for its members.  When asked whether he would be attending the seminar, Representative Altman was widely reported as saying, “I won’t be able to come.  I forgot to pack a dress.”

Altman got his start in local politics back in 1976 when he was elected to the Charleston County School Board, subsequently serving in that capacity for 20 years.  Then, as now, the progressive worthies on the board regarded him as their bête noir, and no doubt with good reason.  Altman obstructed or attempted to obstruct every politically correct piece of nonsense proposed by the board during those years.  After 20 frustrating years of bickering with the education bureaucrats, Altman stepped down.  Later, he expressed some of that frustration: “There are more people in Charleston County that believe in the tooth fairy,” he lamented, “than people who believe in the school board.”

To his credit, however, Representative Altman has continued to work tirelessly for local control of schools, for real parental involvement in decisionmaking, and, most recently, for returning authority to teachers in the classroom.  Ironically, these very efforts have drawn Altman into a running battle with the organization that, traditionally, might have been most supportive.  When, earlier this year, Altman signed on as a backer of Gov. Mark Sanford’s initiative “Put Parents In Charge,” he was opposed by the hired muscle of the national PTA.  In an editorial published in a number of papers across the state, Altman accurately depicted today’s PTA as little more than a PAC: “What happened to the old PTA?” he wondered.  “One year [when] I was on the school board, I joined 32 PTAs and went to a meeting every week.  Now the PTA is just the political arm of whatever educrat blob there is out there.”  Needless to say, that didn’t go over well with the PTA’s local defenders.  Charleston City Paper pundit Bill Davis responded in his usual patronizing fashion: “Poor John Graham Altman just can’t seem to get his mind around the concept that the PTA has shrugged off its apron and put down its sheet of cookies to knot its neck scarf and pick up a briefcase.”  A briefcase, indeed.  Those of us who live in Altman’s district are just grateful that there are some ideas that poor John Graham just can’t get his mind around.

Even his most persistent detractors admit that Representative Altman’s traditionalist advocacy for state and local sovereignty is genuine.  In April 2005, after the state Supreme Court struck down a Charleston County ordinance that would have placed caps on property-assessment increases for tax purposes, Altman introduced a constitutional amendment intended to allow counties to secede from the state—at least for the purpose of tax valuation.  “Property tax is a monster that is devouring our Charleston community,” Altman told the Charleston Post and Courier.  “We pass bill after bill to try and get property tax relief. . . . I was thinking of how to get us around the constitution.  So I decided to take us out of the constitution.”  While local progressives argue that the property-tax cap was intended to protect the rich, Altman, in fact, spoke for the overwhelmingly middle-class majority in his district, whose mortgages in one of the hottest real-estate markets in the country are backbreaking and whose tax payments are eating away at their children’s college funds.

While the South Carolina chapter of the League of the South has consistently awarded Representative Altman its “Patriot” designation for his legislative performance, others—blacks, liberal women, and homosexuals—would be only too happy to see him hog-tied and castrated (that is, if their cuddly views of human nature allowed them to admit to such vengeful fantasies).  Indeed, sometimes Representative Altman seems to relish baiting such victim groups with an almost Mephistophelian glee.  In March 2000, he joined a number of State House Republicans in opposing a proposed Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, a measure that would make South Carolina the last state in the nation to honor the civil-rights leader in this manner.  Altman, at a crucial moment in the debate, took the floor and began to quote from a biography of Dr. King that, according to the South Carolina News, “alleged that the civil rights leader had extramarital affairs and plagiarized parts of his college papers.”  Altman’s point was that, while it would be appropriate to celebrate a “Civil Rights Day,” King himself was unworthy of such an honor.  “You can run from the real Martin Luther King,” he said, “but you can’t hide from him!”  Enter the chorus of breast-beating accusers, maligning Altman as one of those white-supremacist bigots of yesteryear who slandered the spotless civil-rights leader out of sheer hatred for his cause.  No one, not even the “conservative” Post and Courier, bothered to name the “biography” in question or to report honestly that the “alleged” charges against King have long since been established beyond any reasonable doubt.

A few months later, during the Confederate Flag debate, Altman wrote a letter to Education Secretary Barbara Nielsen after she came out in support of removing the flag from the State House dome.  “The kindest help I can offer you,” he wrote to Nielsen, “ . . . is to get you quickly qualified for the Federal Witness Protection Program.”  In response to claims that his letter could be considered a threat, Altman countered, “I’m not a threat to her.  She’s a threat to our children.”  When he learned that, to appease the NAACP, the Citadel had resolved to remove the battle flag from public view, Representative Altman managed to kill two lovebirds with one stone: “I never thought,” he told the press, “that we’d find the Citadel Board of Visitors and the NAACP holding hands and whispering sweet nothings.”

The Post and Courier once characterized Altman as a “quote machine,” but it is not just the lash of his tongue that enrages the politically correct and the sanctimonious; it is also his taste in lawn décor.  Next time you visit Charleston, take a drive down Folly Road toward the southern end of Altman’s district, and you will see what I mean.  Just across from the Earth Fare supermarket, our local whole-foods Mecca where various vegans, pagans, and companion animals gather to facilitate their evolution on Sunday mornings, you will find the Altman house, where John Graham resides with his lovely wife, Charm.  I say “resides,” but, in fact, the place—a sort of ramshackle minimansion with peeling columns and a fake balcony plastered above the front door, situated on one of the busiest intersections in Charleston—has a desultory air of desertion about it.  The only evidence that the Altmans actually live there are the plastic pink flamingos on the lawn.  From time to time, John Graham and Charm enjoy dressing up the flamingos in cute little costumes.  Reportedly, the birds were on one occasion decked out in nuptial attire.  But what really riled the Earth Fare crowd was the time the Altmans painted half the flamingos black and made pointy white hats for the other half.  Or so it has been rumored; I didn’t personally witness the affront.  One local blogger claims to have it on good authority that the event did occur.  “Apparently,” he writes, “[the Altmans] feel that there is nothing more festive than a mock lynching.”  What is truly laughable is that anyone would take such buffoonery so seriously.  The costumed flamingos are really just “good ole boy” political theater.  Install those same bedizened flamingos in one of our chichi downtown galleries, and the local art mavens would praise them as bold and provocative postmodern agitprop.

Representative Altman was involved in another piece of political theater earlier this year that brought him briefly into the national limelight.  The furor erupted in April after the House Judiciary Committee considered bills intended to make both cockfighting and domestic violence felonious offenses.  The Judiciary Committee passed the “gamecock” bill and tabled the domestic-violence bill—both in the same week.  Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-Orangeburg), a sponsor of the latter bill, naturally seized upon the opportunity afforded by this spectacular case of bad timing: “What we have said by the actions of the Judiciary Committee is we aren’t going to create a felony if you beat your wife, partner.  But now, if you’ve got some cockfighting going on, whoa! Wait a minute.”  Within hours, it seemed, a Sherman’s army of women’s advocacy groups had descended upon Columbia to protest.  When reporter Karen Gormley of Columbia’s Channel 10 News and her camera crew cornered Altman (a Judiciary Committee member) in his State House office, Gormley confronted him with the invidious comparison between cockfighting and domestic violence suggested by Cobb-Hunter.  Altman’s reply and the subsequent “dialog” are savory enough to quote at length.

Altman: “People who compare the two are not very smart and if you don’t understand the difference, Ms. Gormley, between trying to ban the savage practice of watching chickens trying to kill each other and protecting people’s rights in [criminal domestic violence] statutes, I’ll never be able to explain it to you in a hundred years, ma’am.”

Gormley: “That’s fine . . . but my question to you is: Does it show that we are valuing a gamecock’s life over a woman’s life?”

Altman: “You’re really not very bright and I realize you are not accustomed to this, but I’m accustomed to reporters having a better sense of the depth of things . . . ”

Gormley: “It’s rude when you tell someone they [sic] are not very bright.”

Altman: “You’re not very bright, and you’ll just have to live with that.”

When Gormley pointed out that South Carolina’s current domestic-violence law regards such violence as a misdemeanor even on the second offense, Altman replied, “There ought not to be a second offense.  The woman ought not to be around the man.  I mean you women want it one way and not another.  Women want to punish the men, and I do not understand why women continue to go back around the men who abuse them.”

Representative Altman’s “insensitivity” toward the women who “go back around the men who beat them” was, by the following day, splashed all over the cable networks and the New York Times.  The infallibly sensitive Miami Herald columnist William Pitts saw the incident as proof that “plucky little South Carolina” had “shot to the head of the pack” in the competition for “Most Backward State in the Union.”  Of course, given the state of the Union, that’s a pretty flattering distinction.

There are perfectly sound reasons to question the need for special laws for domestic violence (or “hate crimes,” or “gay rights”).  Unfortunately, Representative Altman failed to articulate those reasons.  In the first place, domestic-violence laws rarely take into account the growing frequency of cases in which the battered woman initiates the violent encounter with her spouse (or “partner”).  Recently, even some feminists have begun to admit that “one size fits all” domestic-violence laws fail to consider the complexity of the relationships involved.  Most ominously, many such laws require that, once an incident of domestic violence has been reported, an arrest must be made.

In any event, in the wake of the Gormley affair and the public outcry that followed, Representative Altman came within a hairsbreadth of censure by the House.  To the disappointment of many, he appeared to capitulate under enormous pressure and delivered a public apology for his remarks.  Whether that apology was altogether sincere is a different matter.  To my ears, it sounded more like vintage Altman buffoonery.  Speaking before a packed State House, he said, “I’m sorry I caused pain to those to whom I really caused pain, and I’m sorry I caused pain to anyone who might want to say ‘ouch’ anyway.”  Then he made curious reference to “some people I offended that I didn’t offend . . . ,” and lamented the “feeding frenzy” in the media that threatened his freedom of speech.  “I don’t mind dining out now and then,” he added, “but I don’t always like being the entrée.  It’s been roast pig for the last week.”

Many in these parts believe that Altman’s “apology” won’t do him much good in 2006 when he runs for reelection.  Whether Altman can do enough damage control in his own district to secure a sixth term is an open question.  If he loses, the neocon Republican establishment (not to mention the Democrats) will be thrilled to be rid of a man they consider an embarrassing reminder of the bad old days when a man who battered his wife was too busy hiding from her kinfolk to worry about the law.  But a victory for Altman’s opponent (more than likely Charlie Smith, homosexual activist and real-estate entrepreneur, who has run against Altman twice) would be a great loss for Charleston.  Representative Altman has served her interests loyally and wittily.  Some would disagree about the wit, of course, but judge for yourselves.  Shortly after the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized “gay marriage,” Altman was the man who coined the phrase “black robe disease” to describe the contagion afflicting judges who compulsively legislate from the bench—and that is surely a nomenclature worthy of adoption by the Centers for Disease Control over in Atlanta.