BANDY’S LEGACY BIGGER THAN DECADES, LARGER THAN LIMELIGHT
By Will Folks
In politics, the ability to do a good imitation is “coin of the realm” when it comes to building relationships.
State Sen. John Courson, for example, is known far and wide for his dead-on impersonation of legendary U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond. Similarly, current McCain S.C. Campaign Manager Trey Walker’s reproduction of Attorney General Henry McMaster’s instantly-recognizable southern drawl is a must-hear. Even Gov. Mark Sanford has been known to have some fun with impressions, once notoriously placing former WLTX-TV reporter Brandy Bell on speakerphone as he pretended to be the press secretary and I pretended to be the governor (for the record, my imitation was much better).
But there is one imitation in the political universe that simply defies replication – the sonorous, mellifluous and singularly matchless baritone of legendary State newspaper columnist Lee Bandy.
That’s because in voice – as in life – Lee Bandy is inimitable.
Hearing these two, simple words coming at you from the other end of a telephone line has been more than sufficient to strike fear into the hearts of Presidents, Senators and Governors for decades – to say nothing of press secretaries, political consultants and campaign managers.
But hearing these words also instantly commands a level of admiration, respect and trust reserved only for those individuals who have tirelessly devoted their lives to honesty, fidelity, impartiality and the relentless search for truth – as Bandy has.
It’s easy to look at Lee Bandy’s four decades of service, 3,000 columns and 2 million published words and lose sight of the man – not to mention the faith and integrity – behind it all. The sheer volume of his work is overwhelming, as is the momentous impact it has left on our state and our nation’s political landscape.
But as anyone close to Lee will tell you, it is the words that didn’t get published – and the conversations that had nothing to do with politics – which show us the true measure of this awe-inspiring human being.
MR. BANDY FROM THE CHURCH CHOIR
In a bit of ‘pot stirring’ irony (which I am sure Lee relishes), he happens to be the reason I got into politics.
So I guess there’s one blot on his otherwise unblemished resume, after all.
At any rate, I first called on Lee Bandy in June of 2001, shortly after being offered a job on Mark Sanford’s gubernatorial campaign. Having never worked in politics before, I had no clue what I should do or whether this job offer was a good idea or not.
“Sanford could be a real dark horse in that race,” Bandy told me at the time. “Plus it’s a good opportunity to make contacts. I would probably take it if I were you.”
At the time, I had no earthly idea how important Lee Bandy was. He was just Mr. Bandy from my family’s church, the guy who sang in the choir with my mom and who picked up his daughter Alexa in the parking lot after mission trips with our church’s high school youth group.
Of course, what I know today is that Lee Bandy could have spent that time on the phone with me chatting up the President of the United States if he’d wanted to.
Upon joining the Sanford campaign, it didn’t take long for me to realize just how important Mr. Bandy from the church choir actually was.
“I don’t care who it is, don’t call me,” Sanford told me the first time he left the campaign to spend some time with his family.
“Well,” he added, pausing. “Unless it’s Lee Bandy.”
And after the campaign was over, there was a pretty simple rule in the Governor’s Press Office concerning inquiries from Lee:
“Whatever Bandy wants, Bandy gets.”
Bottom line, Lee Bandy could have asked for three hours of the governor’s time on the absolute last thing in the world the governor wanted to talk about – and insisted that the interview take place in an Igloo at the South Pole – and somehow we would have found a way to make it happen.
Of course Lee hardly ever asked for more than fifteen minutes, and while his questions were never easy, no reporter was ever easier to work with.
ABOVE ALL ELSE, A FRIEND
But it is not Lee Bandy’s professional association which those close to him value most, it is his inestimable life wisdom and unconditional, enduring friendship.
When I was nervous about giving my first-ever political speech four years ago, Lee did more than just promise to show up and lend moral support – he actually volunteered to give the speech with me. Which he did, appearing on stage by my side and turning an ordeal I was dreading into a relaxed, free-flowing forum that helped me gain much-needed confidence as a public speaker.
So when dozens of Lee’s colleagues in the journalism business refer to the profound influence he has had on their careers, I can relate just a little bit.
But the one thing which I will forever remain indebted to Lee Bandy for is the unflinching loyalty he has always showed me as a friend, even when the chips were down. Way, way down.
Basically, at a time in my life when I felt like the walls were closing in and the weight of the world was pouring in like concrete on top of me, a time when countless friends of convenience stopped taking my calls, Lee Bandy did the exact opposite. He started calling me once a week, every week, just to check in and see how I was doing.
And he kept on calling, once a week, every week for nearly a year – never looking for information, never taking sides, never judging me or anyone else – just listening and being a good friend.
As long as I live I will never forget that. Or ever really be able to thank him for it.
In fact, when Lee and I finally caught up yesterday morning after a week of playing phone tag, I wasn’t at all surprised to hear the reason for his original call.
“Oh, I didn’t need anything,” he told me. “I was just checking in to see how my friend was doing.”
STILL GLUED TO THE TELEPHONE
Lee Bandy may have retired from The State newspaper as the most respected, prolific and influential journalist in South Carolina history, but he’s not retiring from the job he loves the most – stirring the pot.
He’s still writing his weekly column, he still remains a coveted national radio and television analyst and he’s literally getting bombarded with requests to write a book.
Even the “new media” wants a piece of the Bandy mystique, as the website SC Hotline is reportedly courting him to become one of its regular contributors.
“So far it’s like nothing’s changed,” his wife Mary told me the other day. “He’s still glued to the telephone.”
And without fail those on the other end of the line know it the second they hear it.
The voice, like him, is inimitable.