Rob Christensen

Outsiders help North Carolina politicians think outside the box

Democratic Gov. Terry Sanford was named one of the 10 best American governors of the 20th century by a 1990 Harvard University study.

Such lists are obviously arbitrary, but if Sanford (governor from 1961-65) belongs in such an exalted circle, he can thank, in part, his unorthodox decision to hire a novelist from Asheville to be his special assistant and his idea man for his final two years.

John Ehle, who died last month at age 92 in Winston-Salem, was a singular figure in Tar Heel politics. Ehle didn’t attend political functions, was not interested in power, didn’t really want the job, and left the government payroll as soon as he could.

Ehle traveled in cultural circles, not political ones – an accomplished novelist and the author of 17 books, married to Tony-winning British stage actress, Rosemary Harris, and the father of well-known actress, Jennifer Ehle. They maintained homes in Winston-Salem, Penland, New York City and London.

There were no airs about the plain-spoken Ehle, who treasured his down-to-earth North Carolina mountain roots. But he knew a good cigar and a fine wine. After all, Ehle authored “The Cheeses and Wines of England and France With Notes on Irish Whiskey.”

But that was all in the future.

He was still a budding, 37-year old novelist working on his break-through novel, The Land Breakers, while teaching in Chapel Hill, when Sanford began courting him to be his special assistant.

Sanford, a North Carolina progressive, was finishing the first half of his term in which he pushed through education improvements, and was looking to make an impact in his final two years.

Sanford was a lame-duck because governors were constitutionally limited to one term at the time, so he didn’t have to worry about re-election. Sanford mainly sought privately financed programs, so he didn’t have to sell expensive new programs to a legislature that was to his political right.

Finally, Sanford was by nature a risk taker.

Sanford had surrounded himself with bright young men who would later make their mark in the world: Joel Fleishman, Tom Lambeth, and Hugh Cannon, in what became known as “Terry’s Kindergarten.”

Ehle said he got a call from his friend Fleishman, inviting him to a dinner at the Executive Mansion, where Sanford was asking 10-12 people on what he should concentrate his last two years on. The ideas, as Ehle recalled, ranged from highway safety to more pig farming.

But Sanford saw something he liked, and asked Ehle back. After rejecting the governor several times because of his book contract, Ehle agreed to work in what he thought would be a part-time consulting job.

Sanford gave him the offices of the lieutenant governor – vacant since the death of incumbent Cloyd Philpott -- and for the next 16 months – Ehle poured forth ideas.

The first idea fell through – to turn Asheville’s Biltmore House into an art center for the training of high school or college students. George Cecil, the owner, rejected the idea.

But a whole series of other ideas bore fruit. Some eight Ehle ideas Sanford helped turn into reality. They did it mainly with private funds, tapping New York foundations such as the Ford and Carnegie Foundations, and North Carolina foundations such as the Mary Reynolds Babcock and Smith Richardson Foundations.

After one New York meeting with Sanford, Ford Foundation President Henry Heald turned to one of his deputies in the elevator: “Have you still got your wallet?”

The programs included an eight-week summer Governor’s Schools for the state’s brightest high school students; the N.C. School for the Arts in Winston-Salem, the state’s first film board; the Advancement School for underachieving students; the Learning Institute of North Carolina in Durham, which provided research for the improvement in education.

The N.C. Fund was one of the first state anti-poverty programs in the country, set up to experiment with ways to address poverty in each of the three sections of the state.

It later became a model for President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, VISTA and the Peace Corps – with Johnson handing one of his signing pens to Ehle.

But Ehle said the N.C. Fund was a far more limited program, designed to go out of existence after eight years.

“We were not declaring war on poverty. We were trying to solve a problem that had been with us for decades,” Ehle said in a 1996 Southern Oral History Program interview by Steve Keady.

Another Ehle idea, the N.C. School of Science and Math, did not come to fruition until years later, when Gov. Jim Hunt became governor.

Ehle said the programs cost $15.1 million back in the sixties, with taxpayers responsible for only $1 million.

Sanford would later become president of Duke University, helping build it into a world-class university; he was also a U.S. senator and a two-time presidential candidate.

There have been other period of creativity in North Carolina government, most notably in the early 1930s.

After the stock market crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression, Democratic Gov. O. Max Gardner essentially re-invented state government. He invited the Washington-based Brookings Institution to study it.

As a result, the state took responsibility for paying for the roads, the schools and the prisons, the consolidation of the state campuses into a single university system, and the creation of a single state purchasing agency. Some of the Brookings proposals were never adopted – such as reducing the number of state-wide elected executive offices from 13 to three, and consolidating some of the smaller counties.

Gardner was driven to innovation by the desperate times of the Great Depression. Sanford and Ehle had a rare spark of creativity, looking for ways to turn a poor state into what National Geographic Magazine called “a Dixie Dynamo.”

Could today’s “conservative revolution’' – so dubbed by then-House Speaker Thom Tillis – be regarded as a creative period, bringing about a dramatic directional change in state government?

The Republican-controlled legislature during this decade had voted to provide more choice in public education, pushed through the largest tax cuts in state history, slashed state unemployment benefits, blocked expansion of Medicaid, and has tried to make it more difficult to obtain an abortion and for gay couples to marry.

The upshot has to been to shift public policy to a more conservative footing.

Many of the GOP legislative initiatives were borrowed from conservative think tanks, other states or national conservative organizations.

What all three instances have in common -- Ehle/Sanford; Gardner/Brookings and the Republican legislature -- is they all benefited from outside nontraditional thinking to help state policy makers think outside the box.

Rob Christensen can be reached at or at 919-829-4532