The most interesting of all?

Published 3:19 pm Thursday, August 5, 2010

Who is the most interesting North Carolina political figure yet to be the subject of a major biography?

Former Governor Jim Hunt, you say. Good guess, but Gary Pearces biography of Hunt will hit the bookstores in a couple of months.

Recent books about Terry Sanford (by Howard Covington and Marion Ellis), Jesse Helms (William Link), and Sam Ervin (Karl Campbell) and upcoming books about Luther Hodges (Campbell) and Kerr Scott (Julian Pleasants) can help us understand the transformation of our states politics away from the race-based traditions that held sway during much of the 20th Century.

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Who is left? Republican Governors Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin? Former Republican Senator Lauch Faircloth, who learned his considerable political skills as a Democratic insider? Good suggestions.

But right now my nomination for the most interesting potential biography is for U.S. Senator Robert Morgan.

Maybe my decision is influenced by a recent canoe trip a group of us made with the 84-year old former senator down the Cape Fear River from Lillington, where he maintains a law practice at his home a few miles downstream. On the way down the river I heard some stories about North Carolina politicians that I had never heard before. I will share a couple of them in a minute.

But it is not only the stories that make me wish for a good biography of Morgan. A close look at his career could help us begin to see an answer to the question people so often ask about North Carolina. How could the same people choose to have a conservative like Jesse Helms and a liberal like Terry Sanford serving them in the U.S. Senate at the same time?

You could come close to seeing an answer to that question if you could understand how Morgan could have been an enthusiastic supporter of liberal Frank Graham in his 1950 U.S. Senate campaign and then 10 years later manage the gubernatorial campaign for segregationist candidate Dr. I. Beverly Lake.

Or if you could figure out how Morgan developed a conservative reputation as a state senator and then, when, elected state attorney general in 1968, made the office a vigorous consumer advocacy agency.

Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974 as a moderate, with considerable support from conservatives, he was defeated six years later by a campaign that defined him as an ultra- liberal. A few years later Morgan worked for liberal Walter Mondales campaign for president.

So what was Morgan-a conservative or a liberal?

I think his biographer will find that he was both, and he was neither–like most North Carolinians.

Maybe the stories will help. Morgan still feels great affection for Beverly Lake, but he says that he tried to get Lake to take a more moderate position on school segregation in the 1960 gubernatorial campaign. Morgan remembers, Dr. Lake said, Now Robert, you have to remember that it is in the middle of the road where you are most likely to get hit and killed.

Morgan thinks people of different persuasions can work together if they can put ideology aside. Morgan says that legendary UNC playwright and professor Paul Green was way too liberal for Harnett County, where both Green and Morgan grew up. However, one of Greens cousins was very conservative even by Harnett Country standards. Nevertheless, when Morgan brought the liberal Senator George McGovern to Harnett County, Greens cousin and McGovern ate breakfast together at the local caf. Later Greens cousin told Morgan that he might have voted for McGovern for president if he had known him before.

Good stories and a possible answer to why North Carolina has both a conservative and a liberal face could make Robert Morgans biography a great book.