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On the Temper of the Times

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 18, Number 3, Fall 2012
pp. 25-41 | 10.1353/scu.2012.0030

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Jack Bass’s “unplanned life” brings insights about the Southern Strategy and the colorful and not-so-secret lives of Strom Thurmond, as well as memories of working with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, interviewing Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and much more. Thurmond and Reagan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 2011, Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life, sat down with his friend and colleague Jack Bass, a distinguished journalist and the author of several books on the South, including the influential The Transformation of Southern Politics. Bass discussed the advantages of his small-town roots, finding a career in journalism that coincided with the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement, and even his own short-lived foray into politics. His “unplanned life” brought insights about the “Southern Strategy” and the colorful and not-so-secret lives of Strom Thurmond, as well as memories of working with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, interviewing Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and much more. He also previewed his next book, which provides a historical context for the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that has allowed corporations to make large contributions as independent expenditures in the 2012 campaign.

A Small Town Called “North”

Ferrel Guillory: Tell me about North, South Carolina.

Jack Bass: I grew up in North. North was named for Colonel John North, who was one of three men who gave most of the land for the town, and he had been a lance corporal in the Civil War. He was no doubt a colonel in the Confederate Veterans Association, and his granddaughter worked in my father’s store.

I was the youngest of seven. My father, Nathan Bass, was an immigrant from Lithuania. He was quite successful until the boll weevil came through in the 1920s. Then he left and stayed for a little while in Morristown, New Jersey, then Lowell, Massachusetts, where my youngest sister, who’s four years older than I am, was born, and then got a letter from someone back in North saying they thought North could support another store again. North was in a majority-black county, and it was small, 700–800 people, but it was a shopping center for an area probably about eight miles in circumference.

My father was sort of the prototypical archetype of the small-town southern Jewish merchant, a big fdr Democrat, big New Deal Democrat, and stayed well-informed. But he was part of the Masonic Lodge, and all the stores in town would close on Wednesday afternoon, and they’d all get together for a fish fry. Well, the fish fry was a poker game.

My mother, Ester Cohen, came to this country with her whole family, when she was two, from Poland. She had, I think, only about six years of education. She had a minor health problem, but it was sufficient that she didn’t finish school.

What was the experience of your family?

I took my nephew from Chicago once to North, maybe fifteen years ago, and we went by a barber shop where I knew the guy, and as he put it, “We treated your father just like he was one of us.” My son is just completing a family history, so I explained to him that everybody else would call somebody “Mr. Joe,” “Mr. Bob,” but they always called my father “Mr. Bass,” not “Mr. Nathan”—slight differences. Essentially, if you were Jewish in a small southern town, with the Baptists and Methodists, so being a person of the Old Testament, you were fully accepted. Plus the fact you were white, so you were accepted as white.

I lived in North until I stayed in college. I was the sixth member of my family to go to University of South Carolina. Graduated in ’56. I was editor of The Gamecock, the student newspaper.

The Emergence of the Civil Rights Movement

Is there an incident, something that galvanized your interest in southern politics, that propelled you into your career?

In 1960 things were just beginning to turn in the South. I’d been back on the East Coast for two months the previous...

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