Rob Christensen

2008 SeasonChristensen

Rob Christensen has covered North Carolina politics for thirty-four years at the News and Observer in Raleigh.

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The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics (2008)


The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics

U.S. Sen. Bob Reynolds could have been North Carolina's Huey Long. But he was more interested in chasing women than starting a revolution.

Born in 1884 into an old Buncombe County family, Reynolds worked as a patent medicine salesman in Chicago, acted in vaudeville, ran a skating rink in New Orleans and traveled around the world, writing travel books, making films and seeking adventure. And everywhere he traveled, the handsome, charming Reynolds sweet-talked beautiful women.

The first Mrs. Reynolds was an attractive, wealthy New Orleans debutante, Fannie Menge Jackson, who died as a result of childbirth, leaving him the equivalent of $3.7 million in today's dollars. The second Mrs. Reynolds was a 17-year-old Georgia beauty named Mary Bland whom he divorced after three years. The third Mrs. Reynolds was 23 -year-old Denise D'Arcy, a pretty French woman whom he divorced after a year. The fourth Mrs. Reynolds was Eva Grady, a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl who died of tuberculosis after three years of marriage.

When he wasn't wooing women or globe-hopping, Reynolds dabbled in politics. His father had been a clerk of court and one of his uncles had been sheriff, another a police chief. At age 26, Reynolds began his political career with a successful campaign for district solicitor (prosecuting attorney.)

With a gift for gab and the slick moves of a patent medicine salesman, Reynolds campaigned through the mountains, riding on an old flea-bitten, one-eyed nag. He campaigned with a wink and a nod. "I don't want this job just to serve you, although I reckon I can do that just as well as anybody," Reynolds said. "I want it for the money. I'm a young lawyer and I need experience. I want to get it at your expense."

In 1923, the restless Reynolds, who had a lifelong wanderlust, once again took to the road. Signing up with a film company, Reynolds fitted out a Ford truck with a bed and kitchen and traveled across France, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Algiers, Djibouti, China and Japan. He was arrested in Italy for taking illegal pictures and was robbed near Hong Kong by Chinese pirates.

Common man persona wins votes

While traveling, Reynolds launched an unlikely campaign for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. Meeting North Carolinians at various exotic locales, he urged them to write their friends back home and asked them to vote for him. He mailed thousands of postcards from the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids or Westminster Abbey to what he called his "God-fearing, tater-raisin', babyhavin' " constituents. "Having a grand time; wish you were here. May not be back in time for elections, but vote for me just the same."

This proved not to be a winning strategy. But encouraged that he could draw a respectable number of votes while globe-hopping, Reynolds tried campaigning at home. In 1928, he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, but four years later, the millionaire U.S. Sen. Cameron Morrison was a perfect foil for Reynolds in Depression-ridden North Carolina.

Reynolds left Asheville in the guise of a poverty-stricken man of the people. He donned a ragged suit, worn shoes, and drove a broken-down Tin Lizzie.

It was Reynolds the common man versus Morrison the plutocrat. Reynolds blamed big business for the Depression. He called for redistribution of the wealth, repeal of national Prohibition, and an end to immigration. And he said Morrison was in the pockets of Duke Power Company.

With his showmanship, good looks and gift for gab, Reynolds cut quite a figure on the campaign trail. He was courteous, friendly, funny, and people could sense that he genuinely liked them. When he was courting his future wives, Reynolds sometimes suggested that he was part of the fabulously wealthy Reynolds tobacco family. But on the campaign trail, the candidate denied any such connections.

Morrison first dismissed Reynolds as a political sideshow. But as Reynolds caught on, Morrison went on the offensive. The senator said Reynolds was only feigning poverty and that before he became a candidate "Our Bob" had been driving a Cadillac and using a private plane. But for Morrison it was too little too late. Reynolds led the primary with 43 percent, followed by 39 percent for Morrison and 18 percent for two other candidates.

Eye to eye with European dictators

Immediately after winning reelection in 1938, Reynolds began a six-week tour of Europe, where he met with numerous leaders. Speaking to reporters after returning home, Reynolds ignited a firestorm that eventually ended his political career.

Reynolds said the United States must stop the "hate wave" against the European dictators. He praised the economic system and progress made in Germany and Italy. "What we should do is to open our eyes and find out what's going on in the world," Reynolds told reporters. "We sit over here and knock Hitler and knock Mussolini and everyone else who differs with us in how a government should be run."

When he got back to the Senate, Reynolds said that "the dictators are doing what is best for their people. I say it is high time we found out how they are doing it, and why they are progressing so rapidly. Hitler has solved the unemployment problem. There is no unemployment in Italy. Hitler and Mussolini have a date with destiny; it's foolish to oppose them, so why not play ball with them?"

Reynolds' comment drew sharp criticism. What was particularly devastating to his reputation was a nationally syndicated "Merry-Go-Round" column written by Drew Pearson and Robert S. Allen in which they wrote that some of his colleagues had nicknamed him "the Tar Heel Fuhrer."

Extremist views lead to downfall

Reynolds' isolationist views ran against the tide of public opinion in North Carolina. As the war clouds gathered in Europe, no region of the country was more supportive of Great Britain and intervention than the South. Reynolds was the only Southern senator who consistently voted with the isolationists, who were mainly Midwestern Republicans.

After he joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January 1939, Reynolds' isolationist views began taking on a pro-fascist tilt. The senator set up in Washington an organization called The Vindicators Association. The stated purpose of the group was to keep America out of war, require all aliens to be registered and fingerprinted, stop all immigration for 10 years, and to deport all alien criminals and undesirables. The association claimed to have 118,000 members. Any American citizen could join, providing they were not black or Jewish. Members received a subscription to its magazine, a red, white and blue feather to be worn in one's cap and a button with the letter V and a picture of the U.S. Capitol and American flags in the background.

Reynolds began to develop a national following on the isolationist right. In Boston he was greeted with "Reynolds for President" posters. "The American people are not going to let their sons fight beside Communistic Russia, even for the so-called saving of democracy," Reynolds warned in Boston.

Had Buncombe Bob become a closet Nazi? His biographer, Julian Pleasants, concluded the senator was a misguided nationalist who carelessly allowed himself to be used by extremists. "He was not an American fascist although he shared some of the ideas of fascism such as nationalism and race superiority," Pleasants wrote. "Reynolds had hoped to use his Vindicators organization and his anti-alien tirades to create publicity and thus promote his political career. He achieved, however, exactly the opposite result."

Copyright © 2008 by the University of North Carolina Press.  Used by
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