New Book Explores Question: What Would Jim Hunt Do?
Coincidentally, at the same time a Republican election hurricane took control of the state legislative chambers, a biography of the Democrats' most successful politician, Jim Hunt, hit the bookshelves.
Hunt tapped his longtime political consultant and confidant, Gary Pearce, to write "Jim Hunt: A Biography." It was a great choice. While Pearce's book is Hunt-friendly and delivers an important political success story, it candidly discusses the ups and downs of Hunt's career.
Today's Democrats may want to read the book to learn how Hunt twice (in 1976 and 1992) won back the governor's mansion from Republican control.
Pearce gives answers, but not easy ones: unbridled ambition from the time Hunt was a youth; networking with possible allies across the state; accepting the mentorship of older supporters like D.B. Sheffield (in high school agriculture and Future Farmers) and Bert Bennett (who had helped build Terry Sanford's political network); an unbelievable work ethic that had him on the go 18 hours of every day but Sunday; a genuine commitment, beyond political advantage, to improve educational and employment opportunities for North Carolinians; and a resilience that gave him the ability to bounce back from defeat.
Pearce is a good storyteller, so his book is not only instructive but also fun to read, making it a good Christmas present for Democrats and Republicans.
The best parts of the book for me were two descriptions of Hunt's bounce-backs from failure.
In 1984, when Hunt announced that he would run for Jesse Helms' U.S. Senate seat, he was immediately a clear favorite to win. But, as Pearce explains in detail in a chapter called "Flip-Flopping to Defeat," Hunt and his team lost an election they should have and could have won.
Hunt could have given up politics and public service. But he went right back to work as governor. Pearce quotes him as saying, "I had two more months as governor, and I was determined to give it all I had. Keep working every day, every night, just like I always had. Don't just quit right then and start boxing it up, but keep working on all the issues."
One result was the transfer of a gigantic piece of Dix Hospital land to N.C. State for the new Centennial Campus, something that might not have happened if Hunt had been busy during this time getting ready to serve in the Senate.
More important, and much less recognized as a Hunt career builder, was his double loss in 1964. His candidate for governor, Richardson Preyer, lost to Dan Moore, ending any hope Hunt had for a position in the new administration.
After the primary, he flunked the bar exam, postponing the time when he could hang out his shingle as a lawyer. What did Hunt do? He took his family to Nepal for a two-year stint as an economic adviser. He worked at a high level to develop an economic plan for the entire nation.
Hunt says, "I learned to get a big view of a country. ... What you have to do to develop a nation - the importance of educating people, providing infrastructure like roads, electricity, banks."
His time in Nepal made him more pragmatic and less ideological. "It isn't just a matter of dividing the pie. You can grow the pie. That's a fundamental thing to know."
My theory, based on Pearce's short description of the Nepal experience, is that it, as much as anything else, set Hunt apart. If Richardson Preyer had won or Jim Hunt had passed the bar exam, Hunt would have missed Nepal. His life and North Carolina history would have made for a much different story from the one Gary Pearce tells so well.
D.G. Martin hosts UNC-TV's "North Carolina Bookwatch," which airs Fridays at 9:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. This week's (Friday, Nov. 26, and Sunday, Nov. 28) guest is William Leuchtenburg, author of "In The Shadow Of FDR: From Harry Truman To Barack Obama."
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