Commentary

Christensen: Though he never ran for office, Friday was a master politician

rchristensen@newsobserver.comOctober 21, 2012 

Bill Friday

DAN SEARS — 2005 File photo - UNC

Before Bill Friday became a Tar Heel legend, he worked for another Tar Heel icon, Frank Porter Graham, the president of the consolidated University of North Carolina.

Friday was a young aide to Graham in the late 1940’s, doing everything for the president, including chauffeuring him to Raleigh to lobby the legislature, because Graham never learned to drive.

Working for Graham caused Friday considerable friction with his father, Lath, a Gaston County textile man, Friday once told me.

The textile men hated Graham with a passion, because Graham lent his name and support to organized labor, which was trying to make inroads among the state’s many textile mills. Graham argued that if the textile owners could organize to have a voice, so could the workers – not a popular view in the state, then or now.

When Gov. Kerr Scott appointed Graham to the U.S. Senate in 1949, Friday was disappointed that Graham did not take him to Washington as an aide. Graham said Friday was needed in Chapel Hill to help run UNC.

One year later, Graham ran for election in a bitter Democratic primary against Raleigh attorney Willis Smith. Graham was a beloved figure, like Friday would later become, who knew personally thousands of North Carolinians across the state. But his liberal views made him an easy target in one of the most vicious race-baiting and red-baiting campaigns in the state’s history.

Politics revealed

It was Friday who drove Graham and his wife, Marian, on election night from his campaign headquarters at the Sir Walter Hotel in Raleigh to his sister’s house in Hillsborough. The ride, Friday would recall, was made in complete silence.

At the door, Graham turned to Friday and said simply, “Good night. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“For Friday, Graham’s defeat exhibited a personal, divisive and nasty dimensions to politics,” writes historian William A. Link in his biography “William Friday” (UNC Press, 1995.) “It educated him about the perils of public life and about the potential for public resentment toward UNC. Friday would not forget that election easily. He had long contemplated politics as an avenue to public service and leadership; even in the distant future, the political world would continue to hold his attention. But the election of 1950 ended any serious aspirations for public office and turned him decisively toward a career in higher education.’’

A common touch

In 1985, Friday was recruited by Democrats to run the following year for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican John East. Supporters commissioned a poll, but Friday, after giving it serious thought, decided not to run, not wanting to step down a year early from the UNC presidency, and not wanting to put his family or the university through another potentially polarizing, Graham-like campaign. His friend, Duke University president Terry Sanford, a former governor, was elected that year.

Friday, whose life was celebrated last week at a memorial service, was, of course, a masterful politician. Friday had to deal with the internal campus politics, legislative politics, governors, donors, business leaders, trustees, the news media and public opinion.

Whether Friday, with his common touch, could have succeeded in elective politics, is something that we will never know. But few were better at the game of inside politics.

Editor’s note: Rob Christensen will speak Sunday at 2 p.m. at the N.C. Museum of History on Tar Heel Political Commercials: Hide the Children. He will show and talk about some of the more famous ads that have aired in the state since 1984.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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