While New York mogul Donald Trump continues to grab headlines in the presidential race, North Carolina long ago had its own version of The Donald.
He was Robert “Our Bob” Reynolds, a two-term U.S. senator, who was a much-married playboy, a showman and publicity hound who infuriated the political establishment with his outrageous statements and antics. He owed much of his popularity to railing against immigrants who entered the country illegally, or as he called them, “alien crooks.” Reynolds even toyed with the idea of running for president.
Born in Buncombe County in 1884, Reynolds trained for his career in politics by selling patent medicine in Chicago, acting in vaudeville, running a skating rink in New Orleans, and traveling around the world writing books and making films. Along the way, the handsome, charming Reynolds sweet-talked beautiful young women – heiresses, New York show girls and so forth. He ended up marrying five of them – the last when he was 57 to a 20-year-old Washington heiress whose family owned the Hope Diamond.
His family had been in Buncombe County politics for years, so Reynolds ran for district solicitor and won. He was unsuccessful in his race for lieutenant governor in 1924, and the Senate in 1928.
But in 1932, Reynolds hit pay dirt when he upset Sen. Cameron Morrison, a former governor and a wealthy Charlottean, in the Democratic primary. (State Democratic headquarters today is named for Morrison.)
In Depression-era North Carolina, Reynolds ran as a poor man against the plutocrat. He donned a ragged suit and worn shoes and a broken down Tin Lizzie, often emptying the radiator so that when he arrived in town steam would be pouring from the hood.
When he found out that Morrison stayed at the exclusive Mayflower Hotel when Congress was in session, Reynolds got a hotel menu showing caviar as one of the items, according to “Buncombe Bob, The Life & Times of Robert Rice Reynolds” by Julian M. Pleasants.
“What do you think he eats?” Reynolds would say. “He does not eat cabbage nor turnips nor ham and eggs, nor fatback like you and I do. My friends, think of it, Senator Morrison, eats caviar.”
Someone would inevitably ask what caviar was, and Reynolds would display the jar, often to tobacco farmers and textile workers.
“This here ain’t a jar of squirrel shot; it’s fish eggs,” he would say. “Friends, it pains me to tell you that Cam Morrison eats fish eggs – and Red Russian fish eggs at that and they cost two dollars. Now let me ask you, do you want a senator who ain’t too high and mighty to eat good ol’ North Carolina hen eggs or don’t you?”
It did Morrison little good to point out that when Reynolds wasn’t campaigning he drove a big Cadillac and flew in a private plane.
During his two Senate terms, Reynolds proved a master of publicity, keeping his name constantly in the newspapers.
He was also an isolationist, and he increasingly became critical of England and an apologist for the fascist countries of Germany and Italy, and an outspoken opponent of immigration.
In Washington, Reynolds set up an organization called the Vindicators Association. Besides wanting to keep America out of the war, the group pushed to require all aliens to be registered and fingerprinted, to stop all immigration for 10 years, and to deport all alien criminals and undesirables. The association claimed to have 118,000 members. (This was at a time of growing numbers of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, and the association’s newspaper was anti-Semitic.)
He urged his followers to set up groups in neighborhoods of seven members, called the “Circle of Seven,” to discuss ways to preserve America. The Vindicators had a program for boys aged 10 to 18 called the Border Patrol, in which they could earn a badge and a $20 reward for catching “alien crooks.”
Reynolds began to develop a national following on the isolationist and xenophobic right. In Boston, he was greeted with “Reynolds for President” posters, and in 1944 he was urged by a group of supporters to run for president as a third-party candidate. He went as far as organizing a group called the American Nationalist Committee of Independent Voters.
But his isolationism was out of touch with North Carolina’s political and business leadership. In 1944, the state Democratic organization put up popular former Gov. Clyde Hoey for the Senate, and Reynolds decided to retire. A comeback attempt failed in 1950 and he died in 1963. He left his daughter a fortune.
North Carolina’s leaders despised Reynolds as a clown and a demagogue.
But Allen Drury, a top newspaperman and best-selling novelist, saw Reynolds not as a clown but as a “shrewd, sardonic, clever man, who accepts the appellation of fop and the derogatory of ‘Buncombe Bob’ with impassive suavity, secure in the knowledge that they will induce in the public mind just the attitude of amused contempt he needs to foster his purposes.”
There are obviously major differences between Trump and Reynolds, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that Trump has fascist or anti-Semitic tendencies.
But both are wealthy showmen who feed on publicity, court establishment outrage, and tap into a deep American xenophobia. And call neither a fool.