Politics & Government

After 45 years, farewell to the campaigns, the politicians, the ‘cue and the readers

During his 45 years covering politics for The N&O, Rob Christensen covered both Gov. Jim Hunt and Sen. Jesse Helms, shown in this file photo with Helms’ wife Dorothy.
During his 45 years covering politics for The N&O, Rob Christensen covered both Gov. Jim Hunt and Sen. Jesse Helms, shown in this file photo with Helms’ wife Dorothy.

I have stumped with candidates in country stores, church campgrounds, and in sweet smelling tobacco warehouses. I have climbed in and out of suspiciously small campaign airplanes in questionable weather. I have watched shift changes at cigarette factories in Durham and textile mills in Kannapolis. I have enjoyed the joyous music in African-American churches.

And I have eaten a lot of barbecue — a lot.

But now my 45-year career of writing about North Carolina politics for The News & Observer has come to an end.

What a privilege it has been. I have known Jesses — Helms and Jackson. I’ve known Jims — Holshouser, Hunt, Martin and Gardner. I have covered every governor since Terry Sanford — although some in their post-gubernatorial phases — and every senator since Sam Ervin.

I have reported from Washington and from national political conventions, and from places so small they will never get a stoplight.

Rob Christensen Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

But I haven’t just written about the big boys. I have hung out with the last of the county courthouse bosses — Sheriff R.W. Goodman of Richmond County and Zeno Ponder of Madison County. And I have chronicled Raleigh politics — mayors such as Tom Bradshaw, Clarence Lightner and Jyles Coggins, as well as local school boards.

I have known some of the most potent legislative lions of our age — House Speakers Liston Ramsey, Jim Black and Thom Tillis and Senate leaders such as Marc Basnight and Phil Berger. And I have chronicled legendary political operatives and kingmakers aplenty, such as Gene Anderson, Brad Hayes, Bert Bennett, Tom Ellis, Carter Wrenn and Gary Pearce.

There’s been no shortage of characters. There was Thad Eure, the self-described oldest Democrat in the barn and Agriculture Commissioner Jim Graham, the self-described Sodfather who could let loose a donkey bray on command. And there was Rufus Edmisten, the former attorney general and secretary of state, and current good ‘ol boy.

I have always tried to remember that I am not important, and no one elected me to anything. But I was doing a necessary job.

Although I always believed newsmen should be wallflowers at the orgy, I sometimes was interjected into the news. In 1984, the state Republican Convention in Raleigh threw me out — by resolution. Jesse Helms would sometimes make me his whipping boy before crowds in Eastern North Carolina. Former Insurance Commissioner John Ingram once described me as “peeping Rob” after I wrote about peering into his Cary home and seeing no furniture. (He was largely living in Myrtle Beach while running for the U.S. Senate from North Carolina.)

But most of all I will always cherish the honor of coming into your homes — and more recently on to your electronic device. I estimate I have written something north of 10,000 articles for the paper. Some of you have seen or heard me in some 600 TV and radio appearances. Or I have met you in person during the more than 300 talks I have made in the last decade or so. It has been my good fortune to have such a well-informed and educated readership.

Newspapers have always been magical to me. For my late father, a working man, newspapers were his university, his eyes to the broader world. I have always believed it was a great privilege and a joy to write the first draft of history.

How many people can say they have enjoyed coming to work almost every day during a 45-year career?

There is also the satisfaction of having worked with so many talented and dedicated men and women. The N&O has always punched above its weight.

I have never viewed politics — which is, after all, a free people practicing self-government — from a cynical point of view. To repeat a quote that Winston Churchill may or may not have actually said: “Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all the other possibilities have been exhausted.”

I will continue to write more extended versions of history. My next book, “The Rise of the Branchhead Boys: North Carolina’s Scott Family & The Era of Progressive Politics,” is scheduled to be published by the University of North Carolina Press on May 13. I hope to see some of you on the book tour trail.

I also plan to write occasionally for The N&O, but no longer on a regular basis.

Thank you for the dozens of emails and phone messages I have received during the past week. But most of all, thank you for reading.

I can be reached at my new email address: robchristensen1920@gmail.com.