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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with James E. Holshouser Jr., January 31, 1998. Interview C-0328-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Timing was key in Holshouser's gubernatorial run

Holshouser describes how he came to run for the North Carolinian governorship. Timing was a key element of Holshouser's victory. The state party's weakness cleared his path because there were few other prominent Republicans in the state; incumbent president Richard Nixon looked prime to pick up North Carolina's vote, and had space on his coattails; and Holshouser was ready to move on from the legislature. In addition to timing, however, Holshouser's position as party chairman had put him in touch with party leaders around the state, building a network that would help put him in the governor's mansion.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with James E. Holshouser Jr., January 31, 1998. Interview C-0328-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACK FLEER:
We want to explore that some later. I would like to start talking to you now about your process of deciding to run for the governorship. Would you talk a little about when the idea began to take form, who were some of the important people who you talked to, how you went about making the decision?
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
Well I wouldn't recommend the way we did it to anybody. Part of it was my own weaknesses, my own personality in that I tend to want to think things to death. One of the things that I have learned along the way in life and in politics is that there are some times when it is better to make a decision one way or the other even if it is the second or third choice. If it is implemented well it is better than nothing being implemented at all. Nothing at all is not too good of English. When we had the fight over the tobacco tax and I got some statewide publicity about that in 1969, I started having people talk with me about it some. But I have to say that I don't believe that I ever viewed myself as a person who had gotten drafted for anything. That it was always because I decided that I wanted to do something. Also I have an awful hard time making up my mind. I knew we had never elected anybody statewide in my lifetime anyway. At the same time it was obvious from the numbers that we were coming closer and closer. It wasn't going to be long, but you just didn't know. I had looked at the possibility of running for Lt. Governor with Gardner in 1968 and just decided not too. You didn't have people encouraging in the sense that they think about these now days. Because at that point, not many people really believed we could elect a governor. I have had good friends tell me later how they had talked with me during the campaign in 1972 and that I would leave and they would say he's really a good guy it is a shame he can't win. And I never did take that as a slight or a slur or anything because I think logically they had every reason to say that. But I also believe that timing is the key to everything. That if you are at the right place at the right time, you may not be the best fellow for the job but you might find yourself getting elected anyway. I thought in 1972 that I was the best guy running but I thought there was also a lot of other people that would make better governors.
JACK FLEER:
Who were not running?
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
Yes, for a variety of reasons. But I also look back and see that for a period of about six years I was the main spokesman for the Republican Party because I was the state chairman and the minority leader, or the caucus leaders as the case might be in the legislature. So any time a reporter wanted to get a Republican Party response to anything I was the guy he was going to call. The first poll that we did in early 1972 showed that I had a recognition, name recognition of about 25%. You contrast that with Hugh Morton's name recognition of 3%. This is a guy who had been in business all of his life. He has had Grandfather Mountain and ties in Wilmington. A lot of people knew him. I saw his son, Hugh Jr., off and on as we crossed paths here in the early stage of the primary before they dropped out. He was telling me that they spent $50,000 which was good bit of money at that point, and did one of these campaigns where you go into every single county over a sixty day period and took another poll and his name recognition had gone to 5%. And that recognition is very hard to build absent a lot of money spent on television. We had the good fortune of starting with a fairly decent name recognition simply because that five or six years of involvement as the state chairman and minority leader. And I guess a fair amount of that came out of that tobacco fight.
JACK FLEER:
Now you mentioned you were determined whenever you got into a battle you intended to win if at all possible.
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
I use to have a dream about waking up on election night and I had lost by five votes. I knew that I hadn't done everything I could and would always end up in a sweat.
JACK FLEER:
That timing was important. Can you talk a little bit about timing? What it was about 1972 that made it, in your mind anyway, possible?
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
Well if you had looked at the pattern of voting, Bob Gavin in 1960 had the first significant statewide campaign. You had other campaigns by Chuck Seawell and Kyle Hayes prior to that time in which men had given a lot of time and energy but the soil hadn't been cultivated enough. We didn't have enough organization and we didn't have enough money, didn't have enough credibility, to have a chance. And you could see in the 1960s. Gavin didn't do as well in the 1964 as he did in 1960. That said to you that national tide tends to affect the state. You could see in the 1966 election, my first one as state chairman, in February it just looked dismal but by the time the fall came along all the food store prices were irritating consumers and Vietnam War was starting to irritate consumers and people. We elected practically everybody we had on the ballot and in places we could have elected some others if we had more. So you knew that the national tide affected North Carolina's local races and statewide races. I sort of found that out early on in the 1964 election. I started getting calls from people in some of the precincts, "You have got to come and see Joe Jones. He says he just ain't going to go vote. He can't vote a straight ticket and Goldwater is saying he is going to take his social security away. You have got to talk to him." And so I would go out there and say, "Don't vote for Goldwater if you can't. Come on vote for the local ticket at least." But you saw the impact, had a bad year; we had a bad year in North Carolina. In 1968 Nixon had carried the state. While we didn't carry the state for governor we came very close, better than 48%. It appeared that Nixon was going to carry the state again in 1972 and there was a pretty decent chance. And as the state chairman, I had had a chance to spend a fair amount of time in Washington with state agencies and with some in the Congress, not much, and in the White House as well. So we had got to know people who might be able to help come in to help campaign. And so over time we had sort of built up a network. I knew a lot of people around the state because I had worked hard as state chairman going around. I would leave Boone and drive down to do a luncheon in Wilson for twenty women and drive all the way back to Boone on a Saturday.
JACK FLEER:
Did you know when you were making those trips around the state that a governor's campaign was a possibility?
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
No, wasn't thinking about that really. It was strictly a party building effort at the time and probably did it in a way that was less intelligent than I would do it today in looking back. But it made a lot of friends for me. I would have probably been more selective in the places I had gone and not drained myself as much as I did in trying.
JACK FLEER:
But it probably did contribute to your name recognition being where it was at the time?
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
It did. It did
JACK FLEER:
And also made you contacts in the party and probably friends and persons who might be indebted, so to speak to you.
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
Well you didn't think of it in those terms. I probably would today. I know people in Washington who come here to make a visit for somebody and expect them not to forget. I have always been naive and I never did figure that I was obligated when somebody did that. But I did get to know the county chairmen and a lot of precinct chairmen. In the key thirty counties that turned out half of the Republican vote, I knew almost all of them. That meant even though Jim Gardner started off as having been the party standard bearer in 1968 and had come close. I have always thought Gardner was one of the more charismatic guys on the stump that I had ever met. Still think that. We knew the organization people and I knew how many votes were going to get cast in the primary and how many we had to have and where they need to come from. We are sort of getting off track a little bit but I remember climbing literally over a mile right up the side of a mountain to see a lumber jack who had a saw mill going up to Wilkes County. The county chairman was right there with me. We saw him and we carried that precinct something like 135 to 12; no it was more than that because it was a big precinct. It was more like 175 to 30, or something, anyhow about 90% of the votes. That is the kind of thing we had to do.
JACK FLEER:
And you mentioned timing. When I asked you the question about sort of elaborating on that, you mentioned primarily historical timing. But were there events or circumstances in 1972 that made that a year in which you felt it was possible to run successfully?
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
Well you always sort of roll the dice on timing. Because as I said if you decided at the time of the filing deadline in 1966 what it looked like for the fall of 1966 you might not have run. But if you had rolled the dice and decided it was worth the gamble, it was a sweep year and you were going to be there, even if you didn't really work very hard in some cases. But you knew that Nixon was an incumbent president who was going to be running for re-election and Muskie looked pretty strong. But I had a lot of help from the White House. Harry Dent who had been the South Carolina state chairman and had coordinated the Nixon campaign in North and South Carolina in 1968 was in the White House. He had been a good friend and adviser. He didn't think I could win. He called me and said, look I know that you are trying to make up your mind whether to run or not. Would you be interested in coming to Washington as General Counsel for the Navy and the Navy did need a General Counsel. I probably wasn't anywhere close to the best-qualified guy to be general counsel. I am a decent lawyer but I think he just didn't want me to get in and get beat. But any rate on the timing thing, it was obvious to me that I couldn't keep going in the legislature. The legislature paid enough money to pay the bills back at home and you are working about half time in the law office. It got you some cases in the law office where people had a DWI and if they could get it carried over for six months to a year that was just a little bit longer to have a license. If I were their lawyer and was gone to the legislature, the judge would carry it over. We only had three criminal terms a year in superior court. Didn't have any inferior courts to amount to. The judicial reform had set up district courts but Watauga's district didn't join that system on the phase in until 1971 or 1972. So if you got by one session of superior court, you were off for another four to five months.
JACK FLEER:
So you could help somebody out but it didn't take you too much time or effort to do it.
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
Well what it meant was you got some clients you might not have had other wise. People who were just looking for anybody. But what I started to say is all I was doing is barely paying bills. I wasn't building up any bank account at all. It was just clear that you could just keep on this treadmill and just run yourself to death. And I told my wife I said either you have got to get out or I have got to get in on a full time basis.
JACK FLEER:
So in making this decision in addition to talking to your wife were there other significant persons that you consulted?
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
Of course, Gene Anderson had been the Executive Director of the party since 1966. He was interested in my running. That was just because he would like to have, he would like to work for a governor instead of the state chairman. His ambitions for me were a natural part of all that encouragement. More than likely he encouraged me more than any body else. But I had some legislators encourage me to look at it too, friends who had helped fight some of those fights and I knew them probably better than anybody else.