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D.G. Martin: ‘Buncombe Bob’ loved to court controversy

By D.G. Martin
Given all the unwelcome publicity about former senator John Edwards, it is hard to believe that only a few years ago I wrote a column that began, “Don’t you wish sometimes that North Carolina had some ‘interesting’ political characters who were just a little bit ‘naughty’?”
Other states have their share of such politicians, but North Carolina’s recent governors and senators have been pretty low key.
In that old column (repeated partially here), I told about a North Carolina senator whose antics made John Edwards’ mistake seem trivial. While Edwards intended his “naughtiness” to be private, this earlier senator was out front with his actions. During his 12 years in office, he kept people all over the country entertained ó and shocked by:
– Planting a big kiss on Jean Harlow, the famous movie star, right on the Capitol steps.
– Getting married five times.
– Snubbing the king and queen of Great Britain.
– Appearing in Lucky Strike cigarette advertising for a $1,000 payment.
– At 57, marrying a wealthy 20-year-old Washington socialite who often wore the famous “Hope” diamond, owned by her mother.
He was also incredibly audacious in his political actions and viewpoints.
– In the years before World War II, he gained the reputation as a No. 1 defender of Hitler and Germany’s aggression in Europe and co-operated with German agents based in the United States.
– He published an anti-immigrant, anti-labor, anti-Jewish newsletter that was often sold at pro-Nazi rallies in this country.
– He introduced legislation to demand that Great Britain cede Newfoundland, Bermuda and its Caribbean possessions to the United States as penalty for failing to pay World War I debts.
When he was first elected to the U.S. Senate, he upset the incumbent Cameron Morrison, the powerful former governor. He ran on a platform calling for more government programs, more government spending, higher taxes on the wealthy and pro-inflationary policies.
In fact, this candidate ran as an avowed “liberal,” and he won the election. This “liberal” ran a hard-hitting and very personal campaign against the wealthy Morrison, which reminds us that dirty campaigns are not a recent invention. He mocked Morrison’s living habits, asking the crowds of depression-poor people at his political rallies, “What do you think he eats? He does not eat cabbage nor turnips nor ham and eggs, nor fatback like you and I do. My friends, think of it, Senator Morrison eats caviar.”
Holding up a jar of caviar, he would continue, “This here ain’t a jar of squirrel shot; it’s fish eggs. Friends, it pains me to tell you that Cam Morrison eats fish eggs ó and Red Russian fish eggs at that and they cost two dollars. Now let me ask you, do you want a senator who ain’t too high and mighty to eat good ole North Carolina hen eggs or don’t you?”
After his election, when his “liberal” image had faded into a “pro-fascist” one, he almost caused a national crisis when, thanks to the old Senate seniority system, he was elevated to the chairmanship of the Senate’s Military Affairs Committee just before the country entered World War II. Newspapers all over the country protested. North Carolina newspapers joined in. Public opinion was so poisoned that he did not even try to be re-elected when his term ended in 1945.
Who is this unremembered character?
Robert Rice Reynolds, from Asheville, was known as “Bumcombe Bob,” for his home county and the content of his public speeches.
If you want to know more about his personal and political life, read “Buncombe Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Rice Reynolds,” by Julian Pleasants. Pleasants, who grew up in Southern Pines and taught history for many years at the University of Florida, recently returned to live in his native state ó just in time to observe the most public excitement about the personal life of a North Carolina senator or former senator since “Buncombe Bob” left the scene.
– – –
D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Fridays at 9:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. Check his blog and view prior programs at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch/

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