Sheehan

What the Easleys forgot

Staff WriterJune 10, 2009 

We once had a pastor who used to tell his teenage children when they would go out with friends, "Remember who you are."

He didn't mean: Remember you're preacher's kids who would embarrass your parents if you got in trouble. Rather, he meant, remember who you are at your very core. Remember your values, follow your morals.

I've thought about our preacher's admonition a lot this week while watching the carnage at N.C. State and watching a former governor's reputation disintegrate.

I have never been an intimate of the Easleys, but I've known them for years. They were charming and smart; Mike was hilarious, a wicked mimic of others in the political sphere.

I covered Mike in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in 1990, when he was a hard-charging prosecutor who had built a reputation putting away drug dealers. Later, as attorney general, he and my husband, Harry Payne, served together on the Council of State.

When my oldest son was born, Mary knit him a hat shaped like a strawberry.

After Mike was elected governor, I wrote a column about Mary, also a former prosecutor, being the first wife of a North Carolina governor to work outside the mansion; she continued teaching at N.C. Central.

Funny how that turned out.

In December 2001, Mike Easley appointed my husband to be chairman of the state Employment Security Commission. That's the reason I didn't write about Easley during most of his two terms.

I mention all this by way of saying that I'm not one of the longtime Easley bashers who thought he didn't do a darn thing but crash a few race cars during his years in the governor's mansion.

For those of us who liked and admired the Easleys, the last few months of revelations have been hard to comprehend.

Mary Easley was a well-respected law school professor, a natural hire for N.C. State, a no-brainer -- until she got the 88 percent pay raise and her bosses and protectors started changing their stories about the arrangements to cover their own butts.

Former Chancellor James Oblinger, he of the famed photographic recall, "forgot" that he had exchanged e-mail about the hiring of the first lady. Nor could he remember the details of Provost Larry Nielsen's payout, even though he himself sweetened those details the day before Nielsen resigned last month.

But the more troubling memory loss, it seems to me, has been by the Easleys themselves.

Mary and Mike were at one time idealistic, enthusiastic public servants hoping to crack down on crime, strengthen education and improve the lives of regular North Carolinians. Their appeal was to the common man. Heck, when Mike first got elected, there was talk the Easleys wouldn't even live in the mansion.

Somehow, though, they seemed to have lost their way.

I don't know that the Easleys ever did anything illegal. That's for the legal system to decide.

But taken all together -- the free use of cars for Mary and the Easleys' son, the free plane trips for campaign and fun, the exorbitantly paid job for Mary -- it seems the Easleys acquired a sense of entitlement.

That's something that would have been repugnant to the dynamic couple I first met years ago.

In short: They didn't remember who they were. And that, I'm afraid, is how history will remember them.

ruth.sheehan@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4828

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