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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 >>

The burden of high expectations for politicians

Scott considers one of the broader problems of government. People expect so much from their leaders that when those leaders fail to deliver, like Governor Terry Sanford when he promised an extensive road-paving system, the people become cynical. Politicians' evasiveness does little to improve the situation, Scott worries.

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:
You mentioned, at the beginning of today's interview, that one of the things that impressed you was the chief justice saying that you would uphold the law of the nation and the state and the constitution. And we've talked about appointments, we've talked about legislative responsibilities, we've talked about ethical considerations in your administration. Do we expect too much of one person, the governor of the state?
ROBERT W. (BOB) SCOTT:
Boy, I don't know. I've never had a question put to me like that. Expectations are pretty high, but that's partly the fault of the process, the candidate raises the expectations. "If you elect me, I'll do these things!" And so we may—I think we do expect the officeholder, the governor, the president in particular, and yes, the lieutenant governor, because the lieutenant governor [unclear] —we expect more because we don't understand the process, we don't understand the restrictions, the limitations on their power, on the office of governor. The governor may, indeed, really want to do that, but finds out that, for whatever reason, it simply can't be done. So it was not done. There comes then the disappointment on those who expected him to do thus-and-so, and consequently it builds cynicism. And I think that's part of the reason why there is a lot of cynicism in the government today. I had a fellow, just this past week, I happened to run into him and he told me he retired from state government here locally; he worked as a heavy equipment operator for the state highway commission. He was thirty years in it, and retired January the 31st. And he asked me, "Do you ever see Governor Hunt any more?" And I said, "Well, not really, except at meetings, where, you know, we speak, and he goes on, and I'm in the audience, and he's up on stage giving a talk. I don't really see him." He said, "Well, when you see him next time, you tell him that he doesn't have but three more years to give us a chance to vote on the lottery." You know, I don't know that Governor Hunt's ever said he'd give us a chance to vote on the lottery, but if he did, that's for the legislature to decide, not him! And, you see, his expectation was, because somehow he had it in his mind that the governor was going to let us vote to see if the state would put on a lottery. And, oh, heavens, I ran into that a lot of times, the expectations of people. And I think elected officials, because we are in a democracy, and the powers are dispersed, and so the governor being the most visible, that the people expect more of that officeholder, the person in that office, and then when he can't wave a magic wand to cause things to happen, then they become disappointed and cynicism is apt to rise to the fore.
JACK FLEER:
Are people willing to accept a governor's explanation of his inability to do things?
ROBERT W. (BOB) SCOTT:
Well, I don't know. People want you to be honest, frank, above-board, and yet they don't. If you are, you'll never get elected. I was asked this question not long after I finished my term as governor. I was making a talk locally to a group, and we had a question and answer period afterwards, and near the end of that question-and-answer period, someone asked me, "If you were running for"—remember, this is right after I completed my term in office, not long after—"If you were running for office again, would you be this frank, and honest, and open with us?" And I said, "Well, I'm not sure that I would. I would not be dishonest with you, but I'm not sure I'd be quite as open and frank. Because one of the questions you asked me earlier was, how important, in the scheme of state government, is the office of secretary of state? And I told you, Not very. I said, It's a constitutional office, it's been there since the constitution was adopted, people think about it: well, you have a president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer. But in this case, the secretary of state opens the general assembly and keeps certain records"—of course, it's become a little more powerful, with the merchant code they put in there, but even so. But I said, "I wouldn't have said that if you'd asked me in a public forum, because I don't want to offend the secretary of state, or his friends, or his supporters that elected him. I'll make them mad at me because I said the office didn't amount to anything. So I'm not playing as honest and open with you. I'm not going to say that it's not, that it's unimportant, you see." So I'm not sure I could get elected again, because it's the only power they have. And besides, and let's assume I had maybe fifteen million dollars to run a campaign, which precludes my ever running again anyway, I tend to be frank and a little bit abrupt. I don't have the finesse that some do. You would think after all these years of giving speeches, I would've made the effort to improve that. I tend more to say what I think now than—. I think, without sounding egotistical—or being egotistical; it might sound egotistical—I think I'd make a better governor now, because I have a better sense of priority, of what's important. A lot of stuff now would roll off my back that used to perhaps get me bent out of shape a little bit when I was governor. Partly that comes from maturity, of course.
JACK FLEER:
And experience?
ROBERT W. (BOB) SCOTT:
And experience. But I wouldn't like it in particular, but I wouldn't get bent out of shape if I got unfavorable editorials about something. And I realize that this is an opinion of a group of people sitting around a table deciding what the editorial policy was going to be by five votes, you know.
JACK FLEER:
It's not everybody out there.
ROBERT W. (BOB) SCOTT:
But if I didn't have to go through the throes of a campaign, I think I might like to try it for another four years. I think about that for about fifteen seconds.
JACK FLEER:
Even though you know the expectations are very great.
ROBERT W. (BOB) SCOTT:
Yeah. But one of the reasons I think I wouldn't get elected is because I would tell folks, "There's no way I can do that." Well, they'll go on with somebody who says they can. I remember very well Terry Sanford—I use this in Chapel Hill, sometimes, with students—I'll never forget, when Terry Sanford was campaigning for governor in 1960, he was way up in the western part of the state, Cherokee County or some place up there, and he made a statement, he was strong on rural roads, he wanted to continue Kerr Scott's program, and there were still a lot of rural roads that hadn't been paved. And he, according to the news cast, made a statement in a speech up there, that he wanted to pave all the school bus routes in the state. But man, there wasn't that much money in the state treasury, if you took it all. Maybe he didn't realize how much money he was talking about, or he thought he was way up there in the mountains and nobody would hear it, but some reporter picked it up and it made the wire services. "Sanford is going to pave all the school bus routes in the state." And I thought at the time, good heavens! What did that man say? Well, you know, there was no retraction of it anywhere.
JACK FLEER:
Got caught up in the spirit of the campaign.
ROBERT W. (BOB) SCOTT:
Yeah, and when he gets elected and we don't get the school bus route paved through this community, well, you know, it was just a political promise. So all that breeds some skepticism and cynicism. You know, that's one of the reasons, Dr. Fleer, that I enjoy my little bit of teaching. I've come to know what you as a professional have known for many years: there's an immense satisfaction in being able to pass along, to future leaders and potential future leaders, whatever experience and knowledge you have had, hoping that it will enhance their ability to lead. I'd always heard about this, I heard about it from my mother, who was a teacher, my wife who was a teacher, but I never experienced that until I got into a classroom. I understand now.