Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Robert W. (Bob) Scott, February 11, 1998. Interview C-0336-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Measuring the public mood despite the limitations of holding office

Scott explains that the life of a governor is totally circumscribed: he lost the comfort of anonymity with his election, especially at a time of civil unrest. He also describes the challenge of maintaining security without cutting himself off from his constituents. He did so through polling, feedback from political supporters, and counsel from honest, fearless advisers, whom he encouraged to gather information at public events. While special interests groups often demanded specific pieces of legislation, Scott remembers that his contact with constituents usually yielded input on their mood rather than specific policies.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Robert W. (Bob) Scott, February 11, 1998. Interview C-0336-2. 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:
Now, as you were governor for those four years, how could you be reassured—or were you reassured, and how was it that you were reassured, that you were in fact doing what the people of the state wanted you to do?
ROBERT W. (BOB) SCOTT:
Well, a lot of that comes into political instinct. You just have a feel for it. I tried not to become too insulated. That's the thing that any governor has to constantly battle. I kept having to feel the need to push staff away, so that I could have direct access to people. Oh yeah, it's true, people would come in for appointments and so forth, but I was aware that a great deal of screening went on. Because the governor can't see everybody that wants to be seen. And so there's a great deal of screening going on, priorities—how important is your job? And this became even more important during my term because of the times in which I served, the tension in our society, the civil unrest, marching in the streets and all that, so the security was much tighter. You know, you just—I did, at least, sort of yearn for the opportunity to go down the street, they said Greg Cherry did, or Clyde Hoey, I forget which one it was, go down the street to the drugstore and sit out on the counter and get a Coca-Cola, you know. I suppose that must have been Hoey, I don't believe Cherry ever ordered a Coca-Cola. But you just wanted to walk down the street and go buy a shirt in the department store without having a fuss made about it, you know. And of course, one gives up that opportunity when one seeks public office and becomes a public figure. I understand that, but it doesn't take away the yearning to be anonymous in a crowd. And you can never do that, even on, quote, vacation, endquote, because at that time you still had security. Not like the President of the United States, of course, but still. Everybody, somebody has to know where you're—I guess the most remote I ever came, I went to Utah when I was governor, at the invitation of the governor of Utah, to speak out there at a political function. Well, that was my reason for going; they paid me to come, they paid the expenses because it was political. I spoke to their state Democratic committee. But then he and I took off, he was a great hunter, and we went up into the Clearwater Mountains to hunt and go to a camp up there that he and some friends had. And I asked him, I said, "Governor, how can you do this, come up here, just you and I and two of your friends"—who were sort of guides for us, and we had horses and we rode, hunting for elk and moose—and he said, "Oh, they know where we are, and they can get ahold of us. There was a forest ranger camp about five miles away, they could have a copter in there, and we could be at the capital in forty-five minutes if we had to."
JACK FLEER:
But you had a sense of freedom, at least.
ROBERT W. (BOB) SCOTT:
I had a sense of freedom, at least, and he says, "Your people can get ahold of you too, if they had to." So, you know, you never really—you have that responsibility, you take that oath. So that sense of responsibility is always with you.
JACK FLEER:
So what do you do? You're separated from the people, to a certain extent, by the office and by the security that you have, and yet it's very important for you to know what the people are thinking and how they're feeling about what you're doing.
ROBERT W. (BOB) SCOTT:
Extremely important. And back then we didn't do polling like we do now. When I ran for governor, I think we did maybe two polls. When I ran for lieutenant governor, I piggy-backed on somebody else's poll and didn't even know what questions to ask. So, once in office, we didn't worry about polls. We would read those perhaps done by Newsweek, something like that, but they weren't done very frequently even then. Polling wasn't nearly as sophisticated then as it is now. So how did we do this? It was done in two or three ways. Obviously, by reading the media, newspapers primarily, and to some extent watching television. Secondly, feedback from your political supporters. They'll say, "Governor, folks are saying you're going too far out on this environmental issue." So you'll get feedback from your political sources, and you do stay in touch with them. Thirdly, you make speeches around, and you speak to the North Carolina Educator's Association, or some other group, and you get reactions, try to spend a little time mingling with the group, either before or after, shaking hands, pressing the flesh as they call it, and again, your political instincts come in. You can tell, if you are astute at that sort of thing, whether your agenda is flying or not. So those were something. And then you always—a good governor—a successful governor, let's put it that way—a successful governor will always have at least one person, maybe two, on his staff, who will tell it like it is. And they're not there to please you, necessarily. I always said—you gotta have one SOB on the staff. And that person will tell you the bad news.
JACK FLEER:
You name that SOB? You choose that person? They don't become it?
ROBERT W. (BOB) SCOTT:
Oh, yes. It was Ben Rooney, in my case, and I think under Jim Holshouser, at least from an outsider's viewpoint, I think his was Gene Anderson. Everybody thinks Phil Kirk for Jim Martin. They are willing to be the bearer of the bad news and give a pure, honest assessment. Sure, you trust all of your staff, but there's got to be one who will say to you, "Governor, you simply cannot do that, you must not do that."
JACK FLEER:
You've mentioned several ways in which you tried to keep your finger on the pulse, and I want to talk about each of those in a little bit more detail. One of the ways that you mentioned was meeting with and talking with association members, like the North Carolina Association of Educators. You did on average about 125 of those kinds of public appearances a year, during the four years that you were—
ROBERT W. (BOB) SCOTT:
I wondered what I was doing all that time! [Laughter]
JACK FLEER:
During the four years that you were in that office. Would you say that that was, by and large, a useful way for you to maintain some kind of contact with the public? What did you gain from those particular—
ROBERT W. (BOB) SCOTT:
I felt it was a useful mechanism, and I would suggest it still is. Now, one has to be careful and realize that this is a special interest group, and they're rather narrow, but keep in mind, too—I'm talking about talking to more people than just the leadership of the organization. Because they have a vested interest, they have an agenda too. Always realize that somebody's got the agenda, generally speaking. But if you can mingle with the rank and file, and if somebody's got something on their mind, it may be about something else that you as governor and your administration are doing or advocating or opposing, and they just don't think that's right. For instance, this is hypothetical, a teacher, while agreeing that you're wonderful because you're going to advocate a substantial pay increase for teachers, they may be terribly upset about your position on another issue. Welfare reform, or it may be, we weren't concerned with it back then, but abortion rights, whatever it might be. And the rank and file, you'll pick that up if your political antenna is finely tuned, you'll pick that up, and somebody or some of your staff will who are there, also. Now, I tried to have my staff mingle, too, where it was appropriate. You have large groups of people, you can't get out and spend the time walking around the mall so much anymore, and standing at the factory gate, like you did during the campaign, but this is—those association meetings, professional organizations, other larger groups, are ways that you can stay in touch with large groups of people, in a way. And secondly, along that line, I made an endeavor, and I'm not so certain how successful I was in doing it, to get out of Raleigh. And it was a known fact, clearly apparent to me, the further you got away from Raleigh, the more the public appreciated you. I loved to go to functions in communities in the mountains or down on the coast, because they don't get to see the governor out there. This was, again, before there was all that much television. They had television, but they weren't following you around like they do these days. So I organized a tour—this was during the latter part of my administration—I think it started down in Gates County, took the state limousine, and just went from county to county, Gates on down to Perquimans, Pasquotank, Currituck, down the Outer Banks and so forth, stopping at these little towns, and it was set up, they knew we were coming. And there would be little groups of people to meet there, and it was kind of a public relations thing. While I was standing around talking to the adults, the driver was instructed to take the kids that wanted a ride in the limousine. We soon learned we had to strip that limousine of every movable part, or else it's be stripped anyway—like cigarette lighters, and all that, we had to take out all that stuff.
JACK FLEER:
A little remembrance.
ROBERT W. (BOB) SCOTT:
And we'd give them a little certificate, to show that the kids had ridden in the number one car, or something like that. But I found that you don't necessarily hear specifics, although there's always a few people in the crowd who are going to tell you really what they think, and they got something that's really burning on their mind. But you sense whether there's a mood of disappointment or resentment—for one thing, you wouldn't get them there to see you. But if they're feeling that things are going fairly well, generally the mood of the people is fairly happy.