A Political Paradox: North Carolina's Twenty-Five Years under Jim Hunt and Jesse Helms

Article excerpt

January 11, 1997, was a frigid Saturday with the sort of clinging cold that stings the ears and numbs the toes. Still, about five thousand citizens of North Carolina gathered outdoors on the wide lawn in front of Broughton High School near downtown Raleigh. They rose to their feet when James Taylor sang "Carolina in My Mind," then watched as James B. Hunt Jr. took the oath of office as their governor for the fourth time.

Hunt had chosen the site for the ceremony as a symbolic backdrop for his inaugural address, a ten-minute speech devoted entirely to one subject: schools. "More than ever before in our history," he declared, "more than any state in America has ever done, I ask you, I ask all of us, to make a new commitment to public education."

Four and a half months later, the North Carolina General Assembly heard another speech, a far different address in both tone and substance. Senators and representatives, along with judges and Governor Hunt, assembled in the redcarpeted, cinder-block-walled state House chamber to hear the state's senior U.S. senator. Jesse Helms, who was in his twenty-fifth year in the Senate, had accepted an invitation to make his first address ever to the legislature.

It was, like many of Helms's home-state speeches, an amalgam of thoughts and themes, of preaching and politics. He delivered a rhetorical thrust at "the foreign aid give-away agency" and its "arrogant" bureaucrats. He repeated a joke told by Ronald Reagan and echoed the former president in declaring that "big government is the problem." He did not address himself to the environmental, educational, and fiscal issues that state lawmakers confront daily. But, as he has often done through the years, he contended that "unless and until the American people demand the restoration of those moral and spiritual priorities, I simply do not believe that we are going to solve any other problems either."

It is difficult to imagine--impossible, actually--Hunt delivering Helms's speech, or Helms delivering Hunt's. Jesse Helms crusades for prayer in the public schools, but he is no crusader for public education. Jim Hunt wouldn't dream of waiting until voters insist on a moral turnaround to advance solutions to problems in the public realm.

The differences between these two political figures go beyond the simple dichotomy of governor and Democrat versus senator and Republican. They are not diametrical opposites; Hunt is not far left the way Helms is far right. And, to be sure, the Democratic governor takes care to remain in touch with the state's abiding cultural conservatism. Still, to take a long view of both their careers, it is inaccurate to contend that there really isn't much policy difference or philosophical distance between them. Hunt and Helms differ dramatically in their outlooks on life and their life experiences, in the content of their politics and their approach to government.

Yet, each in his own way, Jim Hunt and Jesse Helms have dominated North Carolina's politics during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Their current terms in office do not end until after the next century dawns. As influential members of their political parties, each has contributed to the course of southern politics, serving as inspiration or example to others. Each has made a mark on the nation's affairs--Helms most recently in foreign policy, Hunt in his work on education and teaching standards.

Both Hunt and Helms won their first statewide elections in 1972, a watershed election year in North Carolina politics. After seven decades of unbroken Democratic rule, Republican Jim Holshouser won the governorship and Helms won a seat in the U.S. Senate. For a while, Helms served in the shadow of Democratic senator Sam J. Ervin Jr., who gained national fame with his Watergate investigating committee. In 1976, however, Helms emerged as a political power when his forces helped Ronald Reagan win the North Carolina presidential primary and rejected Holshouser as a delegate to the Republican National Convention. …