S.C. Political Collections Celebrates Congress Week
South Carolina Political Collections is a proud member of the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress (ACSC). ACSC is sponsoring its fifth annual Congress Week, April 1 – 7, with the theme “The People’s Branch.” This is the third of five posts celebrating Congress Week.
John Light Napier (b. 1947) served a single term in Congress, 1981-1983, as representative of South Carolina’s Sixth District. As part of our celebration of Congress Week, SCPC today is mounting our oral history interview with Napier on our website, thus making it available to all who will find Napier’s life and career of interest. His is an inspirational story.
A graduate of Davidson College and the University of South Carolina School of Law, the young Republican attorney worked for Senator Strom Thurmond in the 1970s and decided to run for Congress. He defeated Ed Young in the 1980 Republican primary and then won election to Congress over incumbent John Jenrette with 52% of the vote. Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter received 57% of the vote in the Sixth District, reflecting significant split ticket voting to elect the Republican. Napier was helped by the fact that the election occurred just one month after Jenrette’s conviction in the Abscam bribery scandal.
In Congress, Napier was appointed to the House Agriculture and Veterans Affairs committees and also served as assistant regional whip. In October 1981 Napier was credited for his leadership in the defeat of a significant anti-tobacco amendment, helping save the tobacco price-support program that was so important to his constituents.
Despite Napier’s strong performance in Congress, he was defeated in the 1982 general election by Democrat Robin Tallon, whose election was credited to Tallon’s work with African-American church leaders to assure high African-American turnout and support and Tallon’s extensive “Get Out the Vote” apparatus. Tallon polled 52% of the vote.
Since leaving Congress, Napier has worked as a lobbyist. In 2002, I interviewed Napier as part of SCPC’s effort to document the rise of the Republican Party in South Carolina. The wide-ranging interview covers his education, public service, and life after Congress.
He spoke at length about his work for and relationship with Strom Thurmond. Napier described Thurmond’s management of his office: “I’ve seen him use different management styles. And a lot of it deals with his Chief of Staff. I’ve seen him use the Roosevelt style, where he pits one staff member against another and never tells anybody what’s going on, and he’s the one who makes the final decision. And I’ve seen him then use a very structured Nixonian style. So it’s been different. He told me one time, he said, ‘You never tell anybody everything. You don’t withhold information. But you don’t tell everybody everything, or somebody everything, because if you do that they have as much power as you do.’ I thought that’s very telling about him. He’s a very open person, will be involved in exchanges, but he never reveals everything of himself.”
During the ‘81 campaign, Napier was quoted as saying: “You don’t work for Strom Thurmond for that length of time and not learn something. Once you get to know him, you want to be like him.” When asked about the characteristics that Napier wanted to emulate, he responded, “Oh, I think his service to people. No one can ever accuse him of not wanting to serve people. He has been a great servant of people. He has strong faith. I had another situation to arise one time when I was writing something for him. I said, ‘I am afraid the national debt is out of control.’ He said, ‘I have never been afraid of anything in my life; I don’t use that word.’ He has a strong faith. You want to emulate that. Confidence, but not over-confident. He’s cautious, but by the same token, he’s willing to take risks. He’s balanced in his views of people. The only thing about him that’s unbalanced is politics is all-consuming to him. I mean, he has no real other hobbies or anything like that, but he does, as he executes his politics, he is very balanced in that. He’s the consummate political animal.”
Later, Napier noted: “Being a member of Congress is different from being a staff member. Gosh, the informality of decision-making, one member to another member, is one thing that surprised me. I mean — just how people interact — I had no idea. The outside looking in is totally different from being on the inside looking on the inside. One to another. It’s a club. Not like the Senate, but it’s still a club. And you can say things and do things with people that otherwise you never could do. And that surprised me. My eyes were awakened to that. You have common problems. You have common problems in terms of finances; you have common problems in terms of personal life conditions; and you’re closer. Much more so twenty years ago than occurs now. There’s been a phenomenal change in Washington in the last twenty years. A phenomenal change. Basically because you have 435 political parties in the House and 100 separate political parties in the Senate. You’ve had that breakdown of the party in some ways. In other ways, you’ve had party discipline that’s been exerted. But in terms of the financing of operations, you’ve had everybody for himself — to work for reelection.
Napier’s congressional papers, 25 linear feet of material, are available for study at Clemson University.
By Herb Hartsook