John Drescher

Drescher: Jim Martin’s quick wit served him well

N.C. Gov. Jim Martin, left, and President Ronald Reagan wear engineer hats as part of the "Victory Express" theme at an October 1988 campaign appearance in Raleigh. Martin was easily reelected in November, the only two-term Republican governor in North Carolina history.
N.C. Gov. Jim Martin, left, and President Ronald Reagan wear engineer hats as part of the "Victory Express" theme at an October 1988 campaign appearance in Raleigh. Martin was easily reelected in November, the only two-term Republican governor in North Carolina history. News & Observer file photo

Republicans in North Carolina were feuding. Pat Robertson and George H.W. Bush were running for president in the primaries of 1988. At Republican precinct meetings, Robertson supporters fought aggressively for delegates. At a party convention in Louisburg, Robertson supporters stormed the stage and tried to take over the meeting. Law-enforcement officers broke up the confrontation.

Gov. Jim Martin, running for re-election as only the second GOP governor of the century, wanted a united party. He did some serious work to resolve differences but he also used humor to soothe bad feelings.

He’d just been to a professional wrestling match at Dorton Arena with his son. The governor reported that he’d checked to see if any of the wrestlers were available to maintain order at the upcoming state GOP convention. Unfortunately, he said, “they’re booked that night.”

That story is one of several humorous anecdotes, quips and one-liners recounted in John Hood’s new biography, “Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.” The News & Observer’s Rob Christensen reviews the book in Sunday’s N&O.

Hood is chairman at the free-market John Locke Foundation in Raleigh and a syndicated columnist who appears regularly on TV and radio stations across the state. In his Martin biography, Hood takes a serious look at Martin’s career and makes an important contribution to North Carolina’s written political history.

In doing so, he writes about Martin’s quick wit, which was part of his public persona. Hood includes a good sampling of Martin’s witticisms, although Hood says he ended up with many more quips and corny jokes from Martin than he could use.

One liners

Martin was not a prodigious, larger-than-life storyteller, Hood told me in an interview. North Carolina has had some good ones – former state Attorney General Rufus Edmisten, former N.C. Secretary of State Thad Eure, former U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth and former state Sen. Herbert Hyde among them.

“These are the kind of guys that would tell you long, sometimes self-deprecating stories that would have you doubling over,” Hood said. “That’s not Martin. He tended to do one-liners. Some of them were clearly preplanned and scripted, and some of them were extemporaneous.”

At a high-profile FDA hearing, Rep. Martin, a former Davidson College chemistry professor with a doctorate from Princeton, said government should never ban something “at the drop of a rat.”

Sometimes Martin used humor to defuse a tense situation, as with the feud among Robertson and Bush supporters. Sometimes he used humor to convey a message simply and memorably – a valuable skill for a politician.

Martin served two terms as governor from 1985 to 1993. Before that, he represented the Charlotte area in the U.S. House for six terms.

In 1977, the Food and Drug Administration recommended a ban on saccharin, based on research that showed the synthetic compound caused elevated instances of bladder cancer among rats. At a high-profile FDA hearing, Rep. Martin, a former Davidson College chemistry professor with a doctorate from Princeton, said government should never ban something “at the drop of a rat.”

The hearings were front-page news across the country, and Hood said Martin’s “drop of a rat” quote appeared nationally. The ban never went fully into place and eventually the FDA withdrew it. Martin’s work on the issue raised his profile.

Years later, when he was running for governor in 1984 against Edmisten, Martin argued that Edmisten and prior Democratic candidates had promised more road construction than they could deliver. Martin said voters were better off with candidates who promised too little rather than those who promised too much. He often asked: “Would you rather have unpaved promises or unpromised paving?” Martin won with 54 percent.

Goosey Loosey

As governor, Martin tried to satisfy a multistate agreement that called for North Carolina to locate a hazardous-waste incinerator in the state. When Martin was out-voted by a panel of North Carolina elected officials, other southern states voted to block North Carolina from shipping waste to their states. Martin was exasperated.

“I sort of feel like the Little Red Hen,” Martin said. “Who’s going to help me plant my wheat? Who’s going to help me bake my bread? Turkey Lurkey said he doesn’t want to have any part of it. Goosey Loosey, he’s not going to do it.”

Over the years, some political opponents attempted to portray Martin, who grew up in rural South Carolina, as an out-of-touch college professor. But it never stuck.

“One of the reasons that never worked is that he had a lot of country in him,” Hood said. “He sounded like it and he had an easy rapport with people. Humor was part of that.”

Sometimes quick-witted people in public life use their humor at the wrong time or say something they shouldn’t. Martin never did. His wit served him well.

While sometimes Martin was shrewd with his humor, his best lines, in my view, were just for fun or entertainment.

At a Republican rally in 1972, he spoke of a campaign stop earlier that day at a bra and girdle factory. “They’re the ones,” Martin said, grinning, “if you want to talk about the people who really shape and mold this country.”

Upcoming appearances

John Hood and former Gov. Jim Martin are appearing together at various events, signing books and answering questions. Find them:

Oct. 6 at the North Carolina Museum of History in downtown Raleigh. The event starts at 5:30 p.m. with wine and cheese; the book signing is at 6:30. This is free but you must RSVP the museum. 919-807-7835.

Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. at Quail Ridge Books & Music, 3522 Wade Ave., Ridgewood Shopping Center, Raleigh.

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