Jim Holshouser, who died Monday at 78, retained that flat, mountain accent of his home turf in Boone all his life, long after hed left the mountains for politics in Raleigh and then the practice of law in Southern Pines. Asked about his election as governor in 1972, when he became the first Republican elected to the office in the 20th century, Holshouser would reckon that the most help he had was from George McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee.
Indeed, President Richard Nixons landslide re-election victory over McGovern in a campaign that sowed the seeds of Watergate brought in a lot of Republican office-holders, including a new U.S. senator from North Carolina, conservative Jesse Helms. Yes, it was ironic that in that election, both sides of the GOP triumphed, moderates with Holshouser (who beat conservative Jim Gardner in the Republican primary) and the right with Helms.
Jim Holshouser was a trail blazer when the brush was thick. When he got into politics, the Republican Party was weak and disrespected by Democrats who served with him in the General Assembly. But Holshouser, affable and gracious, worked to make contacts from mountains to sea. He was a man it was impossible not to like, with a sunny disposition that covered an almost-lifelong battle with kidney disease.
Once in office, he pushed for moderate policies on education and the environment and was a steadfast supporter of the University of North Carolina system. The lack of Republicans in the post-Watergate legislature made it difficult for Holshouser to get much done in terms of legislative initiatives, but he was a constructive, positive voice for the state. In his life after politics, he was a respected lawyer who opened a prestigious firm with another former governor, Democrat Terry Sanford.
In Gov. Holshouser, North Carolina was well-served by a leader who understood that politics should not be a blood sport, and that the best interests of the people are first, last, and all thats important in between.