Header image  
line decor
line decor


Looking for Utopia
The Life and Times of John C. West

Philip G. Grose

The first biography of this visionary South Carolina governor and stalwart ambassador to Saudi Arabia

In this detailed account of the life and legacy of John C. West (1922–2004), biographer Philip G. Grose offers insight into a man whose political career was spent on the threshold of dissent and nonconformity, first as a legislator and governor of South Carolina and later as President Jimmy Carter's ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

After representing his native Kershaw County in the South Carolina State Senate from 1955 to 1966, West was elected lieutenant governor and was described by Governor Robert E. McNair as a man who was "always looking for Utopia." West's progressive vision carried him to the governorship in 1970, when he won a hotly contested race over archconservative Republican Albert W. Watson. As governor he carried forward an ambitious agenda for addressing poverty and hunger in South Carolina and eliminating discrimination from state government. His landmark selection of civil rights activist James E. Clyburn—later U.S. House majority whip—as the first black executive to serve on a South Carolina governor's staff solidified West's place in modern history.

After leaving office, West reentered the private practice of law, but only briefly. The election of his long-time friend and fellow Democratic governor Jimmy Carter as president brought West back into public service. During a critical period in the Middle East from 1977 to 1981, West served as U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a position that was regarded by the Carter administration as among the highest diplomatic priorities in the world. West won the confidence of Saudi leaders and was able to serve as a direct conduit to President Carter during those troubled years. His against-the-grain boldness and personal diplomacy served U.S. interests particularly well during the political crises surrounding the Iranian hostage seizure, the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and the Arab world's reaction to the Camp David Accords.

Drawing on West's personal journals and autobiographical sketches, as well as oral histories and his own relationship with West as a staffer and close friend, Grose has created a richly nuanced portrait of a statesman who stepped out of Depression-era South Carolina to champion causes of the underdog and underprivileged as governor and to implement often-unpopular diplomatic policies in the feverish politics of the Middle East as ambassador.

Author Philip GrosePhilip G. Grose (1938–2012) served on the gubernatorial staffs of Robert E. McNair and John C. West and is the author of South Carolina at the Brink: Robert McNair and the Politics of Civil Rights. A veteran journalist and former director of the South Carolina Executive Institute, Grose was a research associate at the Institute for Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina.




"John West was a quiet, determined man of great principle. Because he never sought the spotlight or media attention, his contributions to South Carolina and the nation have not received their due. Now, with this very readable book, Phil Grose captures not only the life and times of a great South Carolinian, but his noble spirit as well."—Walter Edgar, author of South Carolina: A History and editor of The South Carolina Encyclopedia

"Phil Grose has ably captured the importance and essence of my good friend John Carl West in this eminently readable biography. John led a remarkable life, from his early service as an intelligence officer during World War II through his effort late in life to have the confederate flag removed from the State House dome. Grose has been particularly effective in describing the important role John played as governor during a period of great racial strife, and as Jimmy Carter's ambassador to Saudi Arabia."—Ernest F. Hollings, former Governor of South Carolina and former U.S. Senator

"Looking for Utopia is a most insightful and comprehensive biography of a remarkable man, my friend and mentor John C. West.  Phil Grose and I had the honor of working together for Governor West, and this book is a great tribute to his tremendous work as could only be shared by an insider and gifted writer who knew him well. Grose has gotten to the core of what made West a truly gifted politician: He was the perfect blend of the southern gentleman and the determined dreamer. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the crossroads and contradictions of politics and history in the modern South."—James E. Clyburn, U.S. Congressman and Assistant Democratic Leader 




6 x 9
360 pages
30 illustrations
ISBN 978-1-57003-978-2
hardcover, $29.95t

Download an excerpt

    Copyright ©2018 The University of South Carolina Press