Pug Ravenel and the Tragedy of What Might Have Been
Pug Ravenel died last week. He was 79. Most people living 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 a 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 turned to ashes.
First the story of the man and then the tragedy of what might have been.
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 – even back then. He was the boy that was chosen first for the baseball team and the one that all the girls gushed about.
He had something special, and everyone knew it.
And, it was as a young boy playing baseball on the Moultrie Playground that he got a nickname that stuck with him for life. He ran into a telephone pole and broke his nose thus he became Pug.
He delivered newspapers for The Post and Courier and went to Bishop England High School where he was a star athlete – a quarterback, of course. 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 various national economies. His travel buddy was John D. Rockefeller IV – later governor of West Virginia and U.S. Senator. He returned to Harvard for an MBA, then to Wall Street with Donaldson Lufkin Jenerette, one of the hottest firms on the Street, and then a White House Fellowship at the Treasury Department.
With his attractive, whip smart and well connected wife, Molly Curtis, and with their three cute kids in tow, he moved back to Charleston in 1972 – into a beautiful house with a backyard dock and a spectacular view of the harbor.
He had it all – smarts, charm, charisma, looks and wealth.
This is the story of the man, but what came next is the story of South Carolina and what might have been.
In 1973, he announced for governor against a crowded field of seven traditional South Carolina politicians. It was the first election after Watergate and people wanted new, change, outsiders and most of all they wanted hope. Hope for something better and hope for what could be.
Pug gave people that hope.
In an era of back slapping court house politics, he ignored the politicians and used television to talk directly to the people. In an era where a few paragraphs of pabulum passed as a position paper, he wrote a book about policy and ideas. In an era when the insiders said ‘leave it to us’ he said to blacks, young people, women and those who were shut out ‘come join us.’ In an era where politicians talked about roads and taxes, he talked about hopes and dreams.
Pug was not about what was, but about what might be.
And, people responded in a tidal wave of support that 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 only returned to South Carolina a short time before the election and 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.
And thus, began the path of politics that has led us to today. Republican James Edwards was elected, the first Republican since Reconstruction. Since then seven of ten governor’s elections have been won by Republicans. The state house and senate have gone from solid Democratic to solid Republican.
The same pattern has occurred across the South and this is not to say that it wasn’t inevitable that it would happen here. It might have, it probably would have – 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, a pursuit of what could be and not an acceptance of what has been.
As with 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.
And then 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 believe that it was possible and were willing to work their hearts out to make it happen.
At what will certainly be Pug’s over crowded 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 – in their beloved but broken South Carolina.
As with others from ancient Athens until today, the great tragedy of Pug is that he showed us something that we had not seen before. He showed us what was possible but yet, he could not take us there.
Let us not remember what was, but remember what might have been – and hope that the chance will come again for Pug’s beloved and broken South Carolina.