As election season shifted into high gear over the last few months, this summer’s unwelcome publicity concerning former Sen. John Edwards mostly faded from view. Still, considering the impact the news had on the former presidential candidate’s career, it’s hard to believe that only a few years ago I wrote a column that began, “Don’t you wish sometimes that North Carolina had some ‘interesting’ political characters who were just a little bit ‘naughty’?”
Other states seem to have their share of such pols, but North Carolina’s recent governors and senators have tended to be pretty low-key.
In that earlier column, however, I told about another North Carolina senator whose antics made Edwards’ mistake seem trivial. While Edwards intended his “naughtiness” to be private, this man was pretty blatant in his actions. During his 12 years in office, he kept people all over the country entertained—and shocked—by:
1. Planting a big kiss on Jean Harlow, the famous movie star, right on the Capitol steps.
2. Getting married five times.
3. Snubbing the king and queen of Great Britain.
4. Appearing in Lucky Strike cigarette advertising for a $1,000 payment.
5. At 57, marrying a 20-year-old Washington socialite who often wore the famous Hope diamond, owned by her mother.
He was also incredibly audacious in his political behavior and viewpoints:
1. In the years before World War II, he gained a reputation as a No. 1 defender of Hitler and of Germany’s aggression in Europe, and he even co-operated with German agents based in the United States.
2. He published an anti-immigrant, anti-labor, anti-Jewish newsletter that was often sold at pro-Nazi rallies in this country.
3. He introduced legislation to demand that Great Britain cede Newfoundland, Bermuda and its Caribbean possessions to the U.S. as penalty for failing to pay its World War I debts.
When he was first elected to the U.S. Senate, he upset incumbent Cameron Morrison, the powerful former governor. He ran on a platform calling for more government programs, more government spending, higher taxes on the wealthy and pro-inflationary policies.
In fact, running as an avowed liberal, he ran a hard-hitting and very personal campaign against the wealthy Morrison—reminding us that dirty politics are hardly a recent invention—and won the election. He mocked Morrison’s living habits, asking the crowds of Depression-impoverished people at his rallies: “What do you think he eats? He does not eat cabbage nor turnips nor ham and eggs, nor fatback like you and I do. My friends, think of it: Sen. Morrison eats caviar.”
Holding up a jar of caviar, he would continue, “This here ain’t a jar of squirrel shot; it’s fish eggs. Friends, it pains me to tell you that Cam Morrison eats fish eggs—and Red Russian fish eggs at that, and they cost $2. Now let me ask you, do you want a senator who ain’t too high and mighty to eat good ole North Carolina hen eggs, or don’t you?”
After his election, when his liberal image had faded into a pro-fascist one, he almost caused a national crisis when, thanks to the old Senate seniority system, he was elevated to the chairmanship of the Senate’s Military Affairs Committee just before the U.S. entered World War II. Newspapers all over the country protested; North Carolina papers chimed in. Public opinion was so poisoned that he didn’t even seek re-election when his term ended in 1945.
Who was this now-forgotten character? Robert Rice Reynolds of Asheville, known as “Buncombe Bob” both for his home county and the content of his public speeches.
If you want to know more about his personal and political life, read Buncombe Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Rice Reynolds by Julian Pleasants. The author, who grew up in Southern Pines and taught history at the University of Florida for many years, recently moved back to his native state—just in time to observe the most public excitement about the personal life of a North Carolina senator or former senator since Buncombe Bob left the scene.
[D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch.]