On January 1, with the rest of the country nursing its collective hangover and preparing for a day of college football, Herb Kirsh '49 will lock himself in a room. He will not leave this room for one full hour. He will sit, and he will think.
"I take inventory of myself--Can I add? Can I subtract? Can I spell? Can
I still talk pretty good?" says Kirsh, a fourteen-term veteran of the South Carolina House of Representatives. "And if I pass that inventory test, then I run."
If he does run next year, he will most likely win--his last three elections have been uncontested--continuing his improbable streak as South Carolina's most curious political anomaly: an unshakeable Democrat in an archly conservative district, who also happens to be the only Jew in the House. Sitcoms get sold on less fantastical ideas.
"I'm old, but I'm frisky," he says with that big 220-pound (used to be 375-pound) belly laugh of his, and he's not joking. Consider this brief rundown: He sends handwritten letters--about 2,500 a year--to his constituents because "people like handwritten stuff"; he introduces scads more legislation than any other House member, including seemingly picayune measures that would allow people to keep their license plates longer and call toll-free within a given county; he refuses to be given a House e-mail account because he thinks that whole business with the computers is too troublesome; and he's a Democrat whose voting record is so off-the-wall eclectic that when pressed with the question of what he has in common with his party mates, he says, "I don't know. I guess I support education. But Republicans support that, too."
Save your focus-group politics and die-hard party allegiances for the hot dogs in Washington then. Kirsh ain't buying it. All he's really trying to do--been trying to do, in fact, since he joined the Clover (S.C.) city council in 1971--is inject some much-needed fiscal responsibility into state government. It's a lesson he learned from his once-penniless father, Isador, who operated Kirsh's Department Store in downtown Clover with vise-like economic restraint, and later carried into Duke, where he sold football programs and worked in the school cafeteria to pay tuition. Now, as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Kirsh has earned the nickname "Rambo" for his tendency to shoot down anything that might hike up his constituents' tax rates. "Bigger government is not the same as better government," he's been known to say.
His other main philosophical plank, another bit of wisdom he picked up around the department store, is that the people of South Carolina are a fiercely independent bunch with no desire to have someone else telling them how to lead their lives. It's a belief that manifests itself in different ways--from advocating a woman's right to choose an abortion to voting against a bill requiring South Carolinians to wear seatbelts. Plus, he says about the last matter, "I hear all this about their helping with safety and this and that, but they haven't sold me on it too much yet, okay."
And so, Herb Kirsh has earned his place on the list of inimitable, eccentric, and impossibly charming Southern politicians. For good or ill, he's part of a dying breed.
Veis '03 is assistant editor of GQ magazine in New York
Herb Kirsh '49
November 30, 2005