Looking for Utopia: The Life and Times of John C. West

Article excerpt

Looking for Utopia: The Life and Times of John C. West. By Philip G. Grose. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2011. Pp. xiii, 352; $34.95, cloth.)

Philip Grose, formerly a research associate at the University of South Carolina's Institute for Southern Studies, selected his title for this biography of John West from a remark by Robert McNair, West's predecessor as governor of South Carolina, who described his friend and colleague, then the lieutenant governor, as an "idealist . . . always looking for Utopia" (p. ix). Reared on a farm in Kershaw County during the Great Depression by a determined single mother after the heroic death of his father in a school fire, West seemed to excel with boundless enthusiasm at nearly everything he undertook. Assigned stateside for military service during World War II, the Citadel graduate obtained a law degree from the University of South Carolina, where his classmates included both McNair and Ernest F. Hollings. The trio did much in the middle 1960s to halt Strom Thurmond's daring attempt to stampede the white electorate of their native state from a century of Democratic hegemony into the Republican Party, which had prevailed in South Carolina in 1964 at the presidential level for the first time since the disputed election of 1876. By the time of Thurmond's death in 2003, however, South Carolina and most other Deep South states seemed headed toward a potential long-term commitment to the GOP.

Based in Camden, where he practiced law, West began his public life as a member of the South Carolina senate from Kershaw County. Serving in the upper legislative chamber from 1955 to 1966, he was originally a segregationist - like virtually every South Carolina politician at the time - but never felt comfortable denying basic rights to disfavored classes of citizens. In time, West became identified nationally as a leading southern "moderate" during the later phase of the civil rights movement. The McNair- West ticket along with former Governor Hollings, who was seeking one of the two U.S. Senate seats on the ballot in 1966, prevailed to victory, even as Thurmond secured the first of his six terms as the state's senior U.S. senator under the Republican label. In 1970 West succeeded McNair as governor with a convincing but bruising campaign against Thurmond's gubernatorial choice, U.S. Representative Albert Watson. West was frequently compared to several of his regional counterparts - Governors Jimmy Carter of Georgia, Reuben Askew of Florida, and Dale Bumpers of Arkansas - as "New South" figures determined to move their states forward politically, economically, socially, and culturally.

A part of West's political success as governor can be traced to his accessibility to the press and his openness with legislators. In carrying out his duties, he also kept a recurring eye on history, a subject dear to his heart, and left many archival materials for future historians to analyze. …