Durham News: Opinion

‘Pick Nick’: The rise and fall of Durham’s ‘what if?’ candidate

Author John Semonche follows Nick Galifianakis from his boyhood in Durham, where his father ran a popular hotdog restaurant, to his political triumphs and ultimate failure to win election to the Senate.
Author John Semonche follows Nick Galifianakis from his boyhood in Durham, where his father ran a popular hotdog restaurant, to his political triumphs and ultimate failure to win election to the Senate. contributed

Throughout the summer and fall of 1972, North Carolinians of voting age were more transfixed by politics than usual, which is to say they were transfixed to a degree rarely seen before or since.

A nation weary of war in southeast Asia and violent unrest at home was about to choose between incumbent Republican President Richard Nixon, whose 1968 “secret plan” to get out of the Asian quagmire had been neither a secret nor a plan, and the fervent champion of the anti-war movement, Democratic Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota.

But on the state level, the future was no less at issue. A titanic struggle between a popular Democratic congressman from Durham, Nick Galifianakis, and a conservative television commentator from Raleigh, Jesse Helms, for the Senate seat being vacated by ailing incumbent B. Everett Jordan was on everybody’s lips.

It was an improbable matchup: Galifianakis, a gregarious first-generation Greek-American whose name spanned two campaign buttons, and Helms, the dour son of a small-town police chief and vocal defender of the old order who had amassed a loyal following as the editorial voice of Raleigh television station WRAL

Neither candidate was well known outside the Piedmont. Galifianakis was not a progressive Democrat by today’s measure – he opposed forced school busing, for instance – and the conventional thinking was that he had a good chance to move from the House to the Senate.

As a political reporter for The News & Observer, which backed Galifianakis, I was among the throng at the Sir Walter Hotel in Raleigh on that election night in 1972 when the world turned turtle: Jesse Helms rode Nixon’s re-election comet to defeat Galifianakis and GOP lawyer Jim Holshouser shot down Democrat Skipper Bowles to take the governorship, becoming the state’s first Republican chief executive in the 20th century.

This election was, as political analyst John Hood has argued, the beginning of modern North Carolina politics. The Republican Party had come back to the Old North State, and this time it intended to stay.

Politics is the stuff of what ifs. What if Nick Galifianakis had defeated Helms? For sure, the harsh, reactionary and even racist tone set by Helms during his four terms in the Senate would have been muted by the personable, politically moderate Galifianakis.

But we will never know. What we can know, thanks to retired UNC historian John Semonche’s engaging biography of Galifianakis, is how this man with an improbable (and often misspelled) surname became a mover and shaker in the General Assembly and Congress.

In “Pick Nick: The Political Odyssey of Nick Galifianakis from Immigrant Son to Congressman,” Semonche follows Galifianakis from his boyhood in Durham, where his father ran a popular hotdog restaurant on Lincoln Street, to his political triumphs and ultimate failure to win election to the Senate.

One can’t read “Pick Nick” (a campaign identifier used to blunt Helms’ dark reminders that Galifianakis wasn’t Anglo-Saxon) without gaining an appreciation for the Duke University graduate who became North Carolina’s happy warrior. Some of his strategems such as parading a flatbed trailer laden with young female cheerleaders through small towns and quipping that his name “begins with gal and ends with kis” wouldn’t fly today. But 50 years ago, those strategems helped the handsome, glad-handing Galifianakis win elections.

For all its merit as a narrative of Galifianakis’ life and North Carolina’s seismic political changes, however, “Pick Nick” raises a nettlesome question: Can a friend write anything but a hagiography?

Semonche is in fact more than a friend; he has been Galifianakis’ neighbor on University Drive for 48 years.

And, yes, a friend can avoid writing a paean. “Pick Nick” is the man at flood, warts and all.

There is no shying from Galifianakis’ political fall after the 1972 election. In 1974, he made another failed attempt for the Senate, but the stake that went through his heart came from a flashy South Korean fixture on the Washington social scene, Tongsun Park.

Few remember Park today, but in his prime his parties were legend. He was the host with the most, with much of the latter consisting of strategic political donations.

Park was an aggressive, monopolistic rice dealer who lavished money on those who might help him in Washington, but that wasn’t his only objective: He was also thought to be an agent for the South Korean government, which vehemently opposed a steep cut in U.S. troop strength there. The Seoul regime also sought favorable trade deals and other dispensations from influential lawmakers.

Galifianakis, by then sitting on the House Appropriations Committee, was one of numerous Washington insiders who fell into Park’s web. It wasn’t illegal to accept campaign donations from Park and his ilk in the early 1970s. Galifianakis reported a $500 contribution but later returned it, saying he did not take donations from foreign nationals. (Park then diverted the $500 into credit for Galifianakis at a tony Washington club.)

Park would later claim claim that he had actually given Galifianakis $10,500. Crucially, Galifianakis didn’t report the entire contribution – a failure that would eventually result in a federal indictment for perjury.

The Koreagate scandal was the low point of Galifianakis’ personal and political life. Nonetheless, he and his lawyer used the former congressman’s knowledge of congressional rules and federal law to guide him toward dismissal of the perjury charge in 1979.

Semonche’s assessment of Galifiianakis’ fall from grace – he got little help from the North Carolina Democratic establishment, which from the get-go of his political career had subtly treated him as an outsider – is as good and dispassionate as any yet written.

“Pick Nick” shows the historian’s hand at work – facts is facts, as the old folks say – even when your 88-year-old neighbor is the subject of your book. John Semonche’s even-handed biography rescues one of North Carolina’s most colorful politicians from near-obscurity.

For a generation of Tar Heels and a legion of immigrants to the state who know little or, more likely, nothing about the election of 1972 and Nick Galifianakis (though they likely recognize the name in another context: actor and comedian Zach Galifianakis is his nephew), “Pick Nick” is an overdue introduction to the man and his times.

The best political biographies not only revive memories for those who lived through an era, but also tell the story for those who didn’t. Pick Nick is an accessible tutorial on a savvy first-generation American’s political journey through pre-1972 North Carolina, a page-turning rainy-day read blessedly free of the muddled writing that afflicts so much contemporary scholarship.

Bob Wilson is a retired journalist who lives in Durham.


“Pick Nick: The Political Odyssey of Nick Galifianakis from Immigrant Son to Congressman”

By John E. Semonche

Tidal Press, 2016, $18.