Divisive N.C. senator occupies a dark corner of history

Apr. 05, 2014 @ 08:18 AM

 "Buncombe Bob" isn't mentioned much anymore, so I took notice when his name came up in a new book.

"Those Angry Days" by Lynne Olson is an eye-opening history of the years leading up to the U.S. entry into World War II and the bitter debate between interventionists and isolationists.

Buncombe Bob was U.S. Sen. Robert R. Reynolds of North Carolina, a conservative Democrat who became chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee in 1941.

"Reynolds was a passionate isolationist and Anglophobe" who introduced a bill that would impose a 10-year moratorium on immigration, Olson wrote. To promote that cause, he fostered a group called the Vindicators Association and urged young people to join its "border patrol" to catch "alien criminals." A $10 bounty was offered for each one captured.

Reynolds, born in Asheville in 1884, was the subject of a 2000 biography by Julian M. Pleasants called "Buncombe Bob." It's an entertaining read.

In 2014, when the biggest political story in North Carolina is a highly charged U.S. Senate race, it's instructive to look back at some of the characters our state's voters have elected to that office. Reynolds was certainly one of the most colorful and, ultimately, most tragic.

Five times married and an ardent foe of Prohibition, Reynolds was a showman worthy of Vaudeville. In fact, when he launched his 1932 U.S. Senate campaign for the seat held by Cameron Morrison, a former governor, his wife (No. 4) was a Ziegfeld Follies dancer.

Despite never having held office, Reynolds capitalized on public dissatisfaction with Prohibition and divisions within the Democratic Party to spring one of the most shocking upsets in North Carolina political history. Portraying Morrison as a wealthy elitist, he won in a runoff primary and cruised to victory that November.

Reynolds began his Senate career as a New Deal populist, a champion of ordinary people against powerful interests. Gradually, his politics changed, becoming more conservative and pro-business, but also isolationist and nationalistic. After his re-election in 1938, he turned vehemently against President Franklin Roosevelt's policies regarding the approaching war in Europe.

Reynolds compared Nazi Germany's conquests to American expansion and opposed efforts to provide military assistance to Britain. His first public statement on Dec. 7, 1941, was to charge that London was behind the Pearl Harbor attack. A firestorm of negative reaction forced him to retreat and vote for the declaration of war Dec. 8, but his political career slid downhill. He didn't run for a third term in 1944.

Reynolds stands out for his failure to recognize the threat posed by Germany and Japan before Pearl Harbor, but his reliance on identity politics was not unique among North Carolina senators.

He couched his anti-immigration stance, for example, behind a desire to preserve jobs "for our own fine boys and lovely girls." At a time when millions of Jews were desperately trying to flee Europe and escape the holocaust, Reynolds' position was interpreted as being rooted in anti-Semitism.

There was no doubt about the racial attitudes of Democrat Furnifold Simmons, a senator from 1901 to 1931. In 1898, he helped engineer the white supremacy campaign that swept North Carolina, building his own political power on an appeal to "Anglo-Saxon blood."

In 1972, Republican Jesse Helms -- an outspoken opponent of racial integration during the civil rights era -- ran for the U.S. Senate on the slogan "Jesse Helms: He's One of Us." The Democratic candidate was a congressman with the not-one-of-us-sounding name of Nick Galifianakis. Helms won and went on to ignite conservative voters with his denunciations of homosexuals, affirmative action and Martin Luther King Jr.

Helms was a highly successful politician, matching Furnifold Simmons' 30 years in the Senate. "You either love him or hate him" was how he was often described.

Voters should beware of politicians who create stark divisions. After all, a senator represents all the people of the state. He or she should give fair consideration to all points of view and never play one group against another. Demagogues don't serve us well.

Buncombe Bob had his time on top, but he's not remembered fondly now -- when he's remembered at all. His would-be successors should aspire to a more honored place in North Carolina history.