Rob Christensen

Gray hair, paunches and a long-ago campaign – Christensen

President John F. Kennedy (center) and Governor Terry Sanford (front, right) at a meeting at the White House April 28, 1961. From left: Skpper Bowles, President Kennedy, Governor Sanford. At rear from left are Senator Everett Jordan and Comerece Secretary Luther Hodges.
President John F. Kennedy (center) and Governor Terry Sanford (front, right) at a meeting at the White House April 28, 1961. From left: Skpper Bowles, President Kennedy, Governor Sanford. At rear from left are Senator Everett Jordan and Comerece Secretary Luther Hodges. 1961 News & Observer file photo

When most political campaigns are over, the staff and volunteers strike their tents and head home. That is particularly true when their candidate loses, because they will not be rewarded with any government jobs or appointments.

Which makes the 1972 gubernatorial campaign of Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles all the more remarkable. Bowles, a wealthy Greensboro businessman and state legislator, was North Carolina’s first Democratic nominee in the 20th century to lose a race for governor.

One day this month, at Raleigh’s downtown City Club, a group of about 50 veterans of the 1972 campaign got together for lunch to celebrate Bowles and a campaign they lost 45 years ago.

They gathered to swap old stories, joke about paunches and gray hair, remember political comrades-in-arms who had died. But most of all they remembered Bowles.

Bowles, who died in 1986 from complications of Lou Gehrig’s disease, was a public-spirited man who was part of a generation of home-grown North Carolina business leaders who wanted to move the state forward. Besides running for governor, he helped integrate the state’s public parks system while serving in Gov. Terry Sanford’s administration (1961-65), led efforts to create the Bowles Center for Alcoholic Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and chaired the private campaign to raise $30 million to build the Dean Dome.

“He did a lot more after he lost than a lot of governors,” said his son Erskine Bowles, a former University of North Carolina president and two-time U.S. Senate candidate.

Bowles was not universally loved. He knocked off Lt. Gov. Pat Taylor, the favorite in the Democratic primary. Afterward, Bowles angered some Democrats when he said the Taylor supporters would get the dark meat, while his supporters would get the white meat. Sitting Democratic Gov. Bob Scott, who was criticized by Bowles, wrote in his diary that he wasn’t too disappointed when Bowles lost.

Still it was a shock when Bowles lost to Republican Jim Holshouser by a 51 to 49 percent margin. No Republican had been elected since the horse-and-buggy days.

It was the year of President Richard Nixon’s re-election landslide, which also helped sweep Republican Jesse Helms into the Senate. There were no calls for a recount, no cries of fraud, no recriminations. Bowles gathered his staff around him and told them they needed to help make Holshouser the best governor he could be. It was a different, less partisan age.

Bowles was a boyhood friend of Helms. They both played in the same Monroe high school band in the late 1930s along with Henry Hall Wilson, who would become chairman of the Chicago Board of Trade, a U.S. Senate candidate, and White House congressional liaison for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson; John Bowles, who became president of the national Rexhall pharmacy chain; and James Bud Nance, who would become a rear admiral, acting national security adviser for President Ronald Reagan, and chief foreign policy aide for Helms.

The old-boy Monroe connection later paid dividends in Washington when Helms was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Skipper’s boy, Erskine, was President Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff.

The Bowles campaign was one of North Carolina’s first modern campaigns – a large television budget, political consultants and focus groups. But it also had a foot in the past including a headquarters in Raleigh’s venerable Sir Walter Hotel, which once housed nearly all the major political campaigns.

Jim Van Hecke, a former state Democratic chairman from Greensboro and Bowles worker, noted the major differences between campaigns today and those of 1972 – no cellphones, no copying machines and no computers. But what they did have were electric typewriters, onionskin paper, 3-by-5 index cards and lots of cigarette smoke.

Van Hecke was among the old hands at the lunch, a group that included Thad Woodard, Ed Renfrow, Christie Barbee, Tom Lambeth, Jill and Roland Gammon, Carol Spruill, Sam Poole, Jerry Hancock, Jim Sugg and Durwood Stephenson, to name a few.

Campaigns are mainly for the young, and many were twenty-somethings when they worked in the Bowles campaign. Forty-five years later, many have had distinguished careers and their hair has turned gray. But for one afternoon at least, they all seemed a little bit younger as they recalled the campaign of 1972.

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532, rchristensen@newsobserver.com, @oldpolhack

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