Looking back to better understand today

by DG Martin

Some political old hats will tell you that to get a feel for today’s politics, you have to understand what happened in 1972. Things haven’t been the same since, they say.

Then they will probably smile and say to themselves, ‘“Trouble is, nobody really knows what happened in 1972.’”

What happened, in a word or two, is that Republican candidates for governor and the US Senate won election in our state for the first time in the 20th Century.

Republican Jesse Helms defeated Democrat Nick Galifianakis in the Senate general election. Republican Jim Holshouser beat Democrat Skipper Bowles in the governor’s race.

The whole story is so rich and complicated and filled with the crushed aspirations of good people that it would make for a wonderful Shakespearean play or Dickensian novel.

The old hats will tell you that the primary contests in both parties helped shaped the fall results. One candidate in the Democratic primary was Lt. Gov. Pat Taylor from Wadesboro. Taylor lost a primary run-off to Skipper Bowles, father of UNC president Erskine Bowles.

Earlier, Taylor served in the state House of Representatives, including a term as its speaker. But after his primary defeat he never again sought public office. It is a loss for North Carolina; those who know Pat Taylor will tell you. Just this week one of them explained how Taylor could disagree with his more conservative or more liberal colleagues without losing his respect for them.

‘“He believed their principles were worthy of respect even if he didn’t always share them.’”

Taylor is known as a great storyteller, and his friends urged him to write down his recollections about North Carolina politics and life. Finally he has done it in a book titled Fourth Down and Goal to Go.

Taylor’s inside stories about 20th Century North Carolina political figures are worth the price of the book.

One of them is about Hugh Morton, who died a few weeks ago. Morton owned Grandfather Mountain and, although a confirmed Democrat, was well-regarded in Republican-dominated Avery County where he lived. When the local Chamber of Commerce named Morton Man of the Year, he said, ‘“I must be the first Democrat elected to anything in Avery County.’”

The master of ceremonies responded immediately, ‘“Wait a minute, Hugh. You weren’t elected. You were chosen by committee.’”

The book is full of similar humorous stories. It is even more valuable as an honest look at some of the most important political decisions of the latter half of the last century.

For instance, Taylor explains his part in the passage of North Carolina’s annexation law, which permits cities to take in adjoining developed area without the consent of the people who live there. People who live in the newly annexed areas sometimes argue that it is ‘“un-American’” not to give them a voice in a decision that directly affects them. But Taylor proudly argues that North Carolina’s large cities are much more vibrant and healthy as a result.

Taylor publicly and courageously opposed the death penalty when only one other legislator would join him. Still, he respectfully reports the different viewpoints of his colleagues.

In a section aimed at those of us who think the Speaker Ban Law of 1963 was a terrible threat to freedom of speech on college campuses, Taylor explains why the proponents thought it was so important and positive. Taylor even includes a lengthy statement from the late Phil Godwin, who pushed the law through the legislature. Godwin wrote, ‘“There is one thing that must be remembered. This bill and law had much more support throughout the state than the press would ever admit.’”

Similarly, Taylor gives the other side on North Carolina’s struggle with desegregation. He even shares a sympathetic interview that he and his editor, Ed Rankin, conducted with two-time candidate for governor, I. Beverly Lake Sr. Taylor shows Lake to be sincere in his commitment to segregation, reminding us that even good people can be captives of their times.

Pat Taylor gives us a provocative and enjoyable look at North Carolina political history. More importantly, his insight brings us closer to understanding what happened in 1972 and what difference it makes for us today.