Rob Christensen divides 20th century North Carolina into “three rivers of politicians” – business/progressives, conservatives and populists.
Author of the newly published, “The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics: The Personalities, Elections, and Events that Shaped Modern North Carolina” (2008, University of North Carolina Press), Christensen has had a front row seat on state politics for the past 35 years.
His immensely entertaining book examines the political forces that shaped modern North Carolina from its poor, rural roots at the start of the century to Sunbelt success. Christensen, political columnist for the Raleigh News & Observer, spoke at the Mary Livermore Library on September 30 on the campus of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
“North Carolina has a deep and wide conservative streak,” he said. “The voters have not voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1976, but we’ve had 16 straight years of Democratic governors.”
Christensen credits the business/progressive leaders of the state for a “great leap forward beginning in the 1920s,” but continuing through progressive Govs. Jim Hunt, Jim Martin and Mike Easley.
Through investment in roads, higher education and culture, North Carolina has been very successful.
“North Carolina started the century as a poor state trying to pull itself up by the bootstraps,” he said.
But to hear Christensen tell it, North Carolina politics was also littered with colorful characters in high places.
Perhaps the most flamboyant was the 1930s-era populist Sen. Robert Reynolds, who accused his opponent of eating caviar, “Red Russian fish eggs.” The ploy worked for Reynolds who was elected twice and had his photograph made with Hollywood starlet Jean Harlot, Christensen said.
“He was a publicity hound, and the photo ended up on the cover of Life magazine,” he said. “His response was to say ‘the lips of North Carolina women, not Jean Harlot, are the sweetest in the world.’”
Reynolds’ star fell when he praised Mussolini and Hitler in the lead-up to World War II.
Christensen’s research unearthed a turn-of-the-century Pembroke meeting of “Red Shirts,” that was reported by News & Observer founder Josephus Daniels, and the legendary1958 confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan and its leader James ‘Catfish’ Cole.
“Cole said he was going to put Lumbees in their place,” he said. “It didn’t work out that way.”
“Race was used time and time again by the Democrats in the first part of the century, and in the second part of the century by Republicans in reaction to Civil Rights,” Christensen said. “Race is not one of the major rivers running through North Carolina, but a major, major force.”
O. Max Gardner, Frank Porter Graham, Sam Ervin, Jesse Helms, Jim Hunt, John East and John Edwards are pieces of the colorful tapestry that was North Carolina politics in the 20th century, and Christensen’s book is richer for it.
“The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics” was a nine-year journey, he said. “It was very hard for a newspaper man who is used to writing something for the next day’s paper.”
About the coming elections, Christensen said “this is not a normal political year. There is a real mood of discontent right now.”
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