Phil Bailey and Wesley Donehue host Pub Politics
(L to R) Phil Bailey, a Democrat, and Wesley Donehue, a Republican, are good friends who host a weekly political talk show.
Photography by Bob Lancaster
This is the story of two people who, on the surface, seem as different as night and day, as unlikely to mix it up as oil and water. One is a professed Democrat, the other a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. One is laid back and relaxed, the other wired and ready to pounce. Yet, despite their political and personality differences, Phil Bailey and Wesley Donehue are friends, close friends at that, and once a week, they sit down with politicians to talk about the latest issues facing the state. Just to make things more interesting, they do it over a glass of beer.
With more than 100 episodes under their belts, Phil and Wesley’s live internet talk show, “Pub Politics,” has become somewhat of a phenomenon in the state capital. What began as a conversation between Phil and Wes over their version of the state of our state has transformed into the latest word on politics in South Carolina, with politicians actually calling to ask for an appearance on the show.
Guests were initially hard to come by. “When we first started, there were no guests,” recalls Phil. “It was just the two of us. Our first eight episodes were called ‘Happy Hour.’”
“Then Bakari Sellers, a young, up-and-coming state representative, agreed to be on the show,” says Wes. “He was just young enough to not be afraid to go to a bar, be on camera and talk about politics.”
Phil serves as director of the S.C. Democratic Caucus, while Wes is political director for the S.C Senate Republican Caucus. He also is a new media consultant for the S.C. Republican Party and runs his own political consulting firm, Donehue Direct.
While The Whig is their home base, Pub Politics has been known to travel around town, planting their microphones in a variety of local watering holes. In addition to their internet show, Phil and Wes appear weekly on WACH-TV’s news programming to talk about politics.
Each of them caught the political bug at a young age. Phil and Wes both have been working on political campaigns since their teenage years. “We met each other working in the Senate,” says Wes, “and we got to know each other working on the campaign trail.”
Exactly how do two people with such different political backgrounds and philosophies get to be such good friends? “We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Phil says. “We don’t take it personally.”
Phil also says Democrats in South Carolina are a more conservative group. “There are very few truly liberal democrats in the South Carolina assembly,” he says. Not one to let an opportunity pass, Wes jokes, “In any other state, Phil would be a Republican.”
One of their keys to success with the show is the fact that they’ve never ambushed a guest. “We don’t play the ‘gotcha’ game. Most of the time, it’s an opportunity for our guests to show their human sides,” says Phil. That’s not to say the pair doesn’t intentionally rev up a conversation. “Sometimes, I’m a rumor monger,” laughs Phil. “I just stand back and watch the chaos that ensues.”
Wes gets excited about the crowds that show up for tapings. “It’s a mixed group that comes out,” he says. “I remember one show in particular where we had a group from the gay and lesbian community sitting at the same table with my Sunday school class. We might have different viewpoints, but we can sit down and have productive conversations.”
Politicians have come to realize that appearing on Pub Politics can garner them significant face time with voters. “Many of them were hesitant at first to come on the show, especially coming to a bar,” Wes says. “There are still a few who will have a beer, but when that camera comes on, they will set it aside out of view.”
The list of guests on the show reads like a list of who’s who among South Carolina political power – U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, Sen. John Land, Rep. Rick Quinn and Rep. Joe Neal are just a few of the show’s recent guests. There are even appearances by political writers, bloggers and pundits like former editor of The State Brad Warthen and Winthrop political science professor Scott Huffmon.
As with any type of program, some shows require a good deal of preparation, while others take more of a “wing-it” approach. There have been some shows that never made it to the airwaves. Known as the lost episodes, these are shows that got a bit out of hand from perhaps too much sampling of the local brew.
And then there’s “the show” that, even though it never made it to the internet, is quite infamous. “It was the perfect storm of craziness,” remembers Wes. During the gubernatorial election of 2010, Sen. Jake Knotts appeared on the show and media were in attendance. “The primary was the following week, Sarah Palin had just endorsed Nikki Haley and media were all over Columbia.”
During that show, Knotts made a reference to both President Obama’s and Haley’s ethnic backgrounds, saying “We’ve already got a raghead in the White House, we don’t need another raghead in the governor’s mansion.” Audio of that edition of Pub Politics was never made available, citing a technical problem.
In a statement afterward, Knotts apologized for the remark, saying it was meant as a joke. “If it had been recorded, the public would be able to hear firsthand that my ‘raghead’ comments about Obama and Haley were intended in jest,” Knotts said in his statement. “Bear in mind that this is a freewheeling, anything-goes internet radio show that is broadcast from a pub. It’s like a local political version of ‘Saturday Night Live,’ which is actually where the joke came from.”
“If it had been any other week, it wouldn’t have gotten any play, but because the media were there when the comment was made … well, by the time we got off the show, my inbox, my voicemail, everything was full from people trying to contact us,” Wes says. “It went viral in minutes.”
The pair admits that election years provide the best fodder for the show. They recently celebrated their 100th show, but even Phil and Wes aren’t sure how long Pub Politics will last. “We have a lot of fun,” says Phil. “It’s kind of like Wile E. Coyote and the sheepdog going to work. We clock in, we do our jobs where we work against each other, and when we clock out at the end of the day, we’re friends.”