Lee Bandy, the genial, big-hearted political reporter who earned the title of dean of the South Carolina press corps, died Monday from complications of Parkinson’s disease, according to a family member. He was 78.
Bandy spent 40 years at The State, including two decades as the chief Washington correspondent for the newspaper, covering a S.C. delegation that included such larger-than-life figures as the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, retired U.S. Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, and the late U.S. Rep. William Jennings Bryan Dorn. In August, Bandy was inducted into The State-Record Hall of Fame, one of four inaugural honorees.
“Lee Bandy's contribution to South Carolina politics was as significant as the newsmakers he covered,” said Mark E. Lett, executive editor and vice president of The State Media Co. “Bandy's reporting and analysis provided generations of South Carolinians with information and insight about the activities and ambitions of this state's statesmen and scoundrels. No matter the story, Bandy's special talents were in evidence: intelligence, discernment, humor, grace, a probing mind and a professional manner that demonstrated his appreciation for the American political process and the highest standards of journalism.”
From his perch in the Senate press gallery, Bandy covered political campaigns and chicanery with honesty and candor that earned him grudging respect even among those who were angered by what he wrote. He crossed paths with every president and presidential contender since 1968, and was a fixture at all but one presidential nominating convention from 1968 to 2004.
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“I’ve met a lot of fascinating people, and I might add I’ve worked with some wonderful people. You’ve been a source of inspiration to me,” Bandy told his colleagues upon his retirement in December 2006.
That modesty was vintage Bandy, whose gentle spirit and incisive wit were legendary among those who knew him. Although Bandy guarded his sources, he was generous with his political advice to novice and veteran reporters. Upon his return to South Carolina in the mid-1990s, his desk was a regular stopover for national reporters seeking clues to the vagaries of the state’s politics and people.
Bandy covered the transformation of South Carolina from a conservative Democratic stronghold to a Republican state, reminding readers of the state’s complicated history, its sometimes tortured race relations, its strong agrarian tradition and its deep religious roots.
He wrote of the ascendency of the Christian Coalition and other religious right organizations in the late 20th Century. Having grown up as a pastor’s son deeply immersed in the evangelical church, Bandy understood evangelical Christians and their motivations for entering the public square. When S.C. Republicans positioned the Palmetto State as the first-in-the-South GOP primary, Bandy recognized the importance of the state as a political firewall.
He covered Washington during a more collegial time, when Republicans and Democrats could clash over hot-button issues in floor debates, but later retire to a restaurant or bar to discuss their differences over Scotch on the rocks. Bandy was not above covering the occasional political scandal and relished a good story, but he also understood human frailty.
As word spread Thursday that his condition had worsened, dozens of friends and colleagues gathered on Facebook to relate “Bandy stories,” anecdotes that spoke of his personal kindness and his seemingly effortless ability to ask the right, and often impertinent, question.
“He let people talk,” former congressional aide Maxie McDuffie Haltiwanger, a friend and confidante for nearly 40 years, said of Bandy’s style of journalism.
Haltiwanger met Bandy in 1974, when she was press secretary for Charles “Pug” Ravenel, a gubernatorial contender who won a hotly contested Democratic primary only to be denied the nomination because of residency issues. That led to the election of the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, James B. Edwards.
Later, as a Washington aide to now retired 3rd District U.S. Rep. Butler Derrick, Haltiwanger found that Bandy was an authority on all sorts of issues, including nuclear energy and the labyrinthine agriculture bill.
When he returned to South Carolina, Bandy loved nothing better than to walk the streets of small towns and strike up conversations with ordinary people about their views on issues of the day.
An agile reporter, Bandy confided to editors that he thought of himself as a pedestrian writer, but under Bandy’s deft hand the people’s views were stated clearly and concisely. Democrats accused him of leaning right, and Republicans thought they caught a whiff of the leftie in him, but no one ever pinned down his personal political leanings.
Along the way, Bandy wrote 3,000 political columns, was inducted into membership in the Gridiron Club and appeared frequently on national television. When he retired, the milestone was noted in The Congressional Record.
Leland Allen Bandy was born June 5, 1935, in Asheville, N.C., the second of four children to the late Rev. Julian A. and Eunice Bascom Bandy. Julian Bandy was a well-known pastor and, for a time, was president of a Georgia Bible college. Lee Bandy recalled how the family would critique his father’s sermons around the dinner table, delighting in his quirky mannerisms. As a boy he remembered the end of World War II, when his father rolled down the windows of their car and sang “The Star Spangled Banner” on their way home from a baseball game.
Lee Bandy graduated from Bob Jones University, a conservative evangelical institution in Greenville. Prior to joining The State, he worked for the Sims News Bureau.
When he retired Bandy quickly learned how much of an institution he had become. Then-Gov. Mark Sanford awarded him the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian honor.
“You live life, and I admire that,” Sanford said in a letter to Bandy. “Too many people are halfway engaged in the affairs of their times, and I don’t think that makes for much of a life. You have been none other than immersed in the events of your time — even to the point of changing people’s minds and perspectives on some of those events.”
Diagnosed before his retirement with Parkinson’s, a disease that affects the central nervous system, Bandy fought his disease and never exhibited any hint of self-pity. He was a man of deep religious faith, singing in his church choir in Washington and at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Columbia. His family always came first. He was a devoted husband to his wife, Mary Dygert Bandy, and proud of his three grown children, Ryan, Alexa and Michael, and his three grandchildren, Sophia, Nathaniel and A.J., the children of Alexa Bandy Monte and her husband Lt. Col. Jeff Monte.
Mary Bandy and their two sons were present at the Hall of Fame ceremony this summer where Bandy, wheelchair-bound and speaking in a soft, halting voice, still managed to regale his audience with tales of politics past.
There were Strom stories, including the time Thurmond got so mad at “old man Bandy” he threatened to isolate him from the congressional news from his office.
And then there was the time Bandy asked John Kerry if he had Botox treatment.
The stories rolled on, and the sparkle was still in his eye.