Friday, May 30, 2008

Sharp-penned editors hang it up

A note from the Museum of the Albemarle up in Elizabeth City about a new exhibit on the late newspaper editor W.O. Saunders reminds me of the strong tradition of strong-voiced newspaper editors in this state -- and the recent retirement from the field, if that's the right phrase, of two strong and well-informed voices.
Those who surf the net when they can't pick up the Wilmington Morning Star or the Winston-Salem Journal have looked for the bylines of Wilmington's editorial page editor Chuck Riesz and Winston-Salem's editorial columnist Paul O'Connor for years.
They wrote in the tradition of Saunders, whose paper, The Independent, published from 1908 to 1937. Saunders delighted in writing about such characters as the anti-semitic evangelist Mordecai Ham, who he said was a "shrewd, vicious, and uncompromising demagogue, a careless mouth-artist, an irresponsible bunk-shooter and a stirrer up of strife, hatred and bigotry."
Riesz was the master of the verbal deadly dart, a sharp-tongued, wickedly funny wordsmith who reveled in puncturing the hot-air gasbags who sometimes thrive in Raleigh and pounding on those who threw away their public trust and abused power in recent years. In the economic reshuffling that has affected newspapers across the country, Riesz took a company buyout earlier this spring to step down and throttle back. I miss his zingers so well aimed at wayward pols.
My friend Paul O'Connor's columns about this old state have helped readers across North Carolina learn about goings-on in Raleigh for years, first with the Capitol Press Association's daily newspapers and more recently as a Raleigh-based editorial writer and columnist with the Journal. He didn't waste words with florid prose or gushy valentines, either. He was more likely to knock the scab off some dunce's foolishness and call it what it was. I imagine politicians looked at phone calls from Paul the same way they once looked at calls from CBS's Mike Wallace: Uh-oh. He has also taught journalism at UNC Chapel HIll, preparing the unwashed and unlettered for jobs in news writing and opining. O'Connor is giving up column-writing for the Journal but will still write unsigned editorials for the paper on a contract basis while continuing to illuminate the minds of the young in Chapel Hill. I'll miss his columns, but I'm betting the attentive reader will recognize his style in editorials about state issues.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

:Crash" Davis back at Durham ballpark

For my money the 1988 B-movie classic "Bull Durham" is one of the best baseball movies of the live-ball era. It had a great cast -- need I say more than Susan Sarandon as Annie Savoy? -- and a great park to play in, the old Durham Athletic Park, whose grounds once graced Sports Illustrated in a lovely pictorial tribute to the quintessential minor league baseball diamond.
In the movie, Kevin Costner played "Crash" Davis, a one-time big-league catcher sent down to the minors to help develop the hard-throwing, wild-as-a-spaniel-on-speed pitcher named Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh, play by Tim Robbins.
When the movie was being developed, the Costner character didn't yet have a name. Director-writer Ron Shelton came across the name "Crash" Davis in a Carolina League record book and eventually found its real owner: Lawrence Davis of Gastonia, who played ball at every level he could, including American Legion ball and later at Duke University and then the Philadelphia Athletics before World War II. Former UNC President Bill Friday, himself a catcher and a resident of Dallas in Gaston County, played against Davis at least once.
But Davis wasn't a catcher, at least in schoolboy days. He was a shortstop nicknamed Squeaky Davis who once crashed into a leftfielder on a pop fly -- giving him his nickname, according to Blair Lovern's fascinating story on Baseball America Online.
Lawrence "Crash" Davis died in 2001, but Keven Costner is coming back to Durham July 4 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the movie. Costner's rock and roots music band "Modern West" will perform at the DAP that day, preceding the city's annual fireworks show, reports today's Durham Herald.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

U.S. Attorney on the hot spot

Watching U.S. District Judge Terry Boyle interrogate U.S. Justice Department prosecutors, you sometimes forget who's the defendant. So it was this morning at the federal courthouse in Raleigh when a former state official, Boyce Hudson, entered a guilty plea in an extorion and money-laundering case where prosecutors say an ethanol company arranged to bribe him in order to get a quick air permit for its operations.
Hudson was the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources's legislative lobbyist to the General Assembly in 2004. In the agreement he admitted to seeking a bribe of $100,000 and payments totaling $96,000 to be paid after he retired in exchange for helping Agri-Ethanol get a quick air permit. The company got the permit 29 days after it applied -- a fast result in a process that can take up to two years.
(Wednesday update: The Department of Environment and Natural Resources says that's not quite so. The air permit referenced must by decided upon within 90 days -- the period prosecutors say Hudson promised to get the permit issued within. And the average, says information officer Dianna Kees, is 30 to 35 days. Boyles' question why Agri-Ethanol needed Hudson's help is a good one.)
When assistant U.S. Attorney John Stuart Bruce was telling the court about the circumstances of the arrangement, Boyle peppered Bruce with questions about how the extortion deal worked, including such basic questions as how much money it had raised, why it would try to bribe a state official, whether that was a normal business practice and so on -- even how prosecutors got on to the arrangement.
Turned out, Bruce said, that after getting the air quality permit, the company planned to use the quick permit as evidence it would have no trouble doing business with the state and thus would be a good company to invest in because it was politically connected. Company executives told one would-be investor about how they had bought a state official -- but that potential investor called authorities to let them know that something was rotten.
Boyle was astonished at the brass of the company boasting that it had a state official in the bag, and wondered whether that was "the sort of thing you want to put into a prospectus?"
Bruce has been a prosecutor a long time and was used to Boyle's machine-gun questioning style, but he had to be on his toes to keep up with Boyle's pace. The judge was asking the next question even before Bruce had finished answering the last one.
Hudson will be sentenced in late July. He potentially could get up to 30 years for extortion and money laundering, but it is clear that he's a key figure in a federal investigation. U.S. Attorney George Holding would say only that an investigation was on-going, but it has been no secret in Raleigh for years that cut-throat competition among private investors for an ethanol operation had interested federal investigators on more than one occasion.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

An ex-soldier recalls "bad barracks"

Bush's bad barracks tour
President Bush is in Fayetteville today to visit Ft. Bragg and inspect Army barracks -- including the site of the infamous "bad barracks" pictures the father of an 82nd Airborne trooper posted after units returning from the war found overflowing latrine facilities that gave soldiers an unwelcome welcome.
The Associated Press reported:
"FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) - President Bush will tour the 82nd Airborne Division barracks where a paratrooper’s father shot video of substandard conditions, including sewage standing in a bathroom.
"Division spokesman Maj. Tom Earnhardt said Wednesday that Bush will tour the barracks during his Thursday visit to Fort Bragg. Bush is visiting the post for the division’s All-American-Week.
"Earnhardt said conditions at the barracks have “vastly improved” since the video was taken and posted online.
"Once on the Internet, the video spurred a widespread examination of conditions at Army barracks. The Secretary of the Army ordered an inspection of 148,000 Army barracks rooms and said the military would spent $248 million on repairs."

Those "vast improvements" would be welcomed by any soldier who spent hard time at Ft. Bragg. Conditions were bad at the barracks where I took my basic combat training 39 years ago in Company B, 10th Battalion, 2nd Basic Combat Training Brigade ("Bravo, Bravo, B-10-2; First You See the Rest, Now You See the Best!"). The barracks were left over from World War II training units. They were two-story firetraps built of pine, floored in some kind of red linoleum that never would take the shine the drill sergeants wanted. The barracks were covered in innumerable coats of white paint and so treacherously flammable that each platoon kept a fire guard patrolling inside the building all night long.
Of course, those were days when smoking was practically encouraged, so there was always a smoldering butt somewhere. A little pack of cigarettes came in every carton of C-rations, a carton of cigarettes sold for a buck or two at the PX and during short breaks Drill Sergeant Warner, a tough little runt with a heart of mold, would bark, "At ease! Smoke 'em if you got 'em. If you don't got 'em, get 'em from your neighbor. If you don't smoke, start!"
Basic was a good word for everything that happened there in the spring of 1969. We privates had no privacy. In the latrine, toilets were spaced about two feet apart. There were no partitions. You got to know your Army buddies pretty well.
I drove through Ft. Bragg about 10 years ago trying to find the old training company grounds and finally concluded that the Army had wisely torn down the old frame barracks. That would surely qualify as a "vast improvement." But I bet the low-crawl pit is still there somewhere waiting to provide recruits with a miserable, filthy experience in traveling on your stomach. Watch out, Mr. President. Those drill sergeants have no mercy.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Walter Davis' lasting contributions to N.C.

Walter Royal Davis, a multi-millionaire who worked his way up from a Pasquotank County farm to become an oil baron in Texas and later a implacable -- some say bull-headed -- force in North Carolina politics and higher education, died Monday in Chapel Hill. The News & Observer has a comprehensive story today about his figurative and literal contributions to the state. Click here:
The thing that knocked me out about Davis, a larger-than-life fellow (300 pounds in his prime) was his often-gruff style and his soft heart. He is said to have sent something like 1,300 students to college -- and once wrote a $100,000 check for East Carolina students after Hurricane Floyd disrupted life for just about everyone in Greenville.
But Davis didn't make life easy for everyone. He had a falling out with one of his partners, the legendary oilman Armand Hammer, and also differed publicly with UNC Presidents C.D. Spangler and Molly Broad. William A. Link, the scholarly author of biographies and former UNC President Bill Friday and lately former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, wrote about Davis' role in the 1984 upheaval when the UNC Board of Governors was choosing a new board chairman just before Friday retired. In his book "William Friday: Power, Purpose, & American Higher Education," Link wrote that some board dissidents had chafed at Friday's style in running the system; they wanted to be stronger players in the course of the university and not rubber stamps, and Davis broke his pledge of support for former Winston-Salem Mayor Wayne Corpening, the choice of the previously ruling coalition on the board, to support Phil Carson. Following that, Link reported, Davis was one of three board members who met secretly at the old Governor's Inn in the Research Triangle Park before Board of Governors meetings to decide what the board would do next. (Carson has denied this account, but Link stands by his reporting.)
And Davis's lasting contribution might be his mentoree, longtime state Senate president pro tem Marc Basnight, who Davis groomed for a role in statewide politics and who is often regarded as the strongest public official in the state.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The only way to run -- scared

Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole of Salisbury, the state's senior senator, and Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan of Greensboro are getting a lot of ink -- traditional and digital -- these days as a potentially close contest in the general election. Dole was sometimes referred to as a political rock star when she won her Senate race in 2002, and now Hagan, niece of former Florida Gov. and U.S. Sen. Lawton Chiles, is winning good reviews as a rising star of the Democratic Party.
Here's what Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post blog The Fix said just the other day:
"9. North Carolina: We've been somewhat slow to come around on this race -- North Carolina is, after all, a conservative state. State Sen. Kay Hagan (D) ran a solid primary campaign and gets rave reviews from Democratic operatives who aren't easily impressed. Democrats are also overjoyed with several polls (of varying credibility) that show Hagan running virtually even with Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R). That seems a bit ambitious but with Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) promising to contest the Tarheel State and Hagan preparing to run a well funded and active campaign, this race could get interesting. (Previous ranking: N/A)"
We might give that a little more credence if Cillizza could spell Tar Heel correctly, but everyone's entitled to one mistake.
Much is made of recent polls showing Dole and Hagan in a potentially close race. Dole's recent campaign shakeup has also made some news. She's got a new campaign manager, a new communications director and now she's blogging. Her Web site is also promoting her achievements, no doubt aimed at answering critics who ask what she's done lately for the state.
That's the same question that critics asked about former Sen. John Edwards, the one-term Democratic senator when he started running for the presidency.
We can't know this far out whether the race will be close or not. But we do know that a veteran like Dole -- and a veteran like Hagan, for that matter -- are going to follow this common-sense advice: They're both going to run scared. In a hotly-contested state like North Carolina, it makes no sense to run any other way.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Is reining in state auditor a wise move?

Democrats in the legislature are in a tizzy because State Auditor Les Merritt -- a Republican they think has gone from preachin' to meddlin' -- is out of bounds investigating an anonymous ethics complaint filed against a state legislator. They want to make the new State Ethics Commission the sole agency to investigate ethics complaints.
There might be some good arguments for that, such as having a single agency responsible for ethics matters so those with complaints know right where to go. But will the commission investigate all ethics complaints, even anonymous complaints? Will state employees have confidence in filing complaints that they won't be fired for daring to raise an ethics issues? After the governor's office fired a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services over a different issue, it's difficult to believe that state employees won't be intimidated about having to file a sworn complaint if there's any chance their employer will find out who complained.
And, of course, there's the matter of who disciplines legislators if the Ethics Commission determines a complaint has merit. The commission has to give its findings to a legislative ethics committee for any action to be taken against a member. Who knows when any of these findings will be public?
The auditor's office, meanwhile, conducts investigations and makes the results public -- with the kind of transparent government that's so valuable in a democracy.
Democrats in the legislature ought to think twice about how they're going to look if they prohibit any other state agency from looking into ethics matters. After the legislature's wave of corruption that included campaign finance violations, the passing of gobs of money in the men's room, bribery for a vote to stay in power and the sentencing of former Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Black to prison, Democrats will be handing an easy campaign issue to Republicans if they forbid the auditor's office from making inquiries about ethics regardless of whether it makes sense.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Recalling the 'devilish' Holley Mack Bell

When the Greensboro Daily News and Greensboro Record were moving out of their aging red-brick building at the corner of Friendly and Davie in Greensboro 32 years ago, I spotted an old cartoon tossed into a trash bin and fetched it out.
It was one I had seen hanging on the wall since my high school days in the 1960s when as a sports correspondent I visited the newspaper to write up the box scores and stopped by to say hello to the sages in the front office. It was drawn by Hugh Haynie, who had been the paper’s editorial cartoonist until 1958, and portrayed the cartoonist drawing up his Resolutions for 1957. No. 1 on the list was “I will not draw nasty pictures of the editorial department.” Accompanying that image were three others portraying the paper’s editor, H.W. “Slim” Kendall, its associate editor, William D. “Bill” Snider and its editorial writer Holley Mack Bell as devils, complete with pointed tails, horns and pitchforks. Bell also wore a bowtie, a sure-fire giveaway to the cloven-footed devil inside.
Haynie, the cartoonist, went on to a colorful career at the Louisville Courier Journal, where he gave Richard Nixon, among many others, the fits.
That cartoon has gone with me through various moves throughout a long career, including a stint as an editorial writer at the Daily News and the newly merged News & Record many years ago. I have a small collection of editorial cartoons - mostly autographed copies - from some of the best in the business - Dwane Powell of the N&O, the late Jeff MacNelley, and the Observer’s inimitable Kevin Siers.
It wasn’t until several years ago when Bland Simpson asked me to speak to the N.C. Writers Conference that I finally met Holley Mack Bell and got to tell him that he has enjoyed a place of honor on my wall for decades. Bell had completed most of a fascinating career in journalism by then and was living in the little Eastern N.C. town of Windsor and doing some work for his beloved Episcopal church. He had forgotten all about the Haynie cartoon until I mentioned it.
He was born in the 1920s, graduated from UNC’s School of Journalism and served in Europe in the Army during World War II and was a historian at Bad Nauheim in postwar years.
He was a journalist down home, managing the Bertie Ledger-Advance, and a reporter at the old Charlotte News before moving on to the Daily News in Greensboro. He later joined the U.S. Information Agency and was press attache at U.S. embassies in Chile and Colombia and public affairs officer in Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. After returning to North Carolina he became involved with the Historic Hope Foundation, the Historic Murfreesboro Commission and the Museum of the Albemarle, and was president of Friends of Joyner Library at East Carolina University.
Holley Mack Bell died Sunday in Windsor. Those who knew him will celebrate his life Wednesday at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Windsor. And I’ll raise a toast to my impish, bow-tied fellow ink-stained wretch, still hanging on the office wall of an editorial department after half a century.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Racial appeals just won't go away

Democrats like racial appeals, too, even in the 21st century. A few weeks ago when the state Republican Party announced plans for an ad attacking Barack Obama for his association with his former minister Jeremiah Wright and attacking Democratic gubernatorial candidates Bev Perdue and Richard Moore for having endorsed Obama because of the whacko oratory of Wright, I noted that appeals with racial overtones have long been a part of Tar Heel politics. The Democrats majored in it long before the Republicans, developing it into an ugly art form at the end of the 19th century and using it effectively well into the middle of the 20th century.
Democrats haven't given up their racial appeals in the 21st century. Not long after that column, Richard Moore was making his own use of racial appeals against Perdue, suggesting she had not been sufficiently supportive of moves to crack down on the KKK, implying that she didn't want to protect black people, and associating her with the sale of items bearing Confederate battle flag imagess at stores in Georgia run by her stepson.
Now it's Hillary Clinton making racial appeals. The other day she noted that she was supported by “hard-working Americans, white Americans” -- implying that Obama wasn't supported by hard working white Americans, and, by implication, couldn't win.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Is N.C. still a 'vale of humility'?

A reader had this question about an old saying involving North Carolina. She wrote, "During this primary season's spotlight on North Carolina, I have recalled a phrase describing NC and can not find its author or the context within which it was said, or written. The phrase is: 'the vale of humility between two mountains of conceit.'" Where did that saying come from, she wondered.
It's a wonderful question for which I know of no definitive answer. I have seen it attributed to Zebulon Baird Vance, the Civil War era governor of North Carolina, referring to North Carolina's modest 19th century society nestled between the aristocrats of Virginia and South Carolina. It has also been attributed to Alexander Hamilton, or so I have read, but it may precede even those ancient orators.
It's worth remembering that North Carolina until fairly recently was regarded as a poor state, especially in comparison to wealthier plantation-culture states to our north and south. North Carolina was in such a somnolent state at one point that it was derided as "The Rip Van Winkle State" before it began making serious improvements that would boost its fortunes. The prosperity that came in the latter half of the 20th century came as a result of significant investments in higher education, the Research Triangle and a great many other areas.
As to whether the state is still a vale of humility, I dunno. We were often said to be mighty proud of not being proud, but in the modern era I think humility has taken a back seat.
I expect if Winston Churchill were around, he might say, as he did in another context, that North Carolina has much to be humble about.
What do you think?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Why does Wake outvote Meck?

Why are there so many more voters casting ballots in Wake than Mecklenburg?
In Tuesday’s primary election, there were more voters in both the Democratic and Republican primaries in Wake County than in Mecklenburg.
That's a little strange because there are nearly 30,000 more registered voters in Mecklenburg - 571,889, according to the State Board of Elections Web site, compared to 542,358 in Wake.
But the highest number of voters in any race in the two counties showed that more Democrats and more Republicans turned out to vote in Wake than in Mecklenburg. That's based only on the current unofficial returns posted on the board of elections' Web site, and the figures could change.
In the Democratic presidential primary, 162,936 voters turned out in Wake, but only 150,561 in Mecklenburg.
In the Republican primaries, 45,587 Republicans turned out to vote in the presidential primary in Wake; in Mecklenburg, the largest turnout of Republicans was not in the presidential primary but the gubernatorial race: 43,278 Republicans. (Only 43,067 turned out to vote in the presidential primary, which of course wasn’t the top draw on the ballot, with Sen. John McCain all but having it wrapped up, while local Mayor Pat McCrory was a big draw in the governor's race.)
What do you think accounts for the apparent greater interest in voting in Wake? And does that say anything about other differences between the state's two population centers?

Monday, May 05, 2008

Voters, by the numbers

Voters, by the numbers

North Carolina data-net, published by the Program on Public Life at UNC Chapel HIll, has eye-opening new numbers about voter registration on its Web site. A sampling:

Since January 2008, more than 186,800 voters have registered in North Carolina. Of those:
105,549 have been Registered Democrats.
14,354 have been Registered Republicans.
66,898 have registered without affiliation.
64,868 have been African American.
In the last 40 years, the highest percentage turnout (25%) and the highest number Presidential Primary voters (1,101,211) was in 1984. That year, 960,857 (42%) of Registered Democrats voted in the primary election for President and 140,354 (17%) of Registered Republicans voted in the primary election for Governor. (Reagan ran unopposed in the Presidential primary.)
Meanwhile, Under the Dome on the N&O's Web site (third item) reports that more than 8 percent of N.C. voters have already cast their ballots. And it notes that 85 percent of unaffiliated voters who voted early are voting in the Democratic primary -- that can't be good for Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a moderate Republican most of the time who could use some of those unaffiliated voters.

Friday, May 02, 2008

N.C. rail ridership climbing

Amid all the hand-wringing about high gas prices and argument over whether a gas tax holiday this summer would help much, comes word from the Rail Division at the N.C. Department of Transportation that rail ridership in the state continues to climb.

"With train service auto competitive, more and more travelers are exercising their transportation options and taking the train. The state-sponsored North Carolina’s Amtrak Service is seeing consistent increases in the numbers of passengers riding intercity trains, with ridership up more than 20 percent over this time last year," the department said in a news release.

“More and more travelers are finding that our trains provide a timely, safe and environmentally-friendly alternative means of transportation,” N.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Lyndo Tippett said. “We have seen double digit growth in ridership and passenger revenues over the past six months alone.”

"More than 31,000 travelers rode either the Piedmont or Carolinian in March, a 20 percent increase over the 23,036 passengers who chose the train last March. Ridership was strongest on the weekends. On the Piedmont (trains 73 and 74), which runs daily between Raleigh and Charlotte, ridership was up almost 28 percent over last March from 4,619 to 5,901. Ridership on the Carolinian, (trains 79 and 80), which runs daily between Charlotte and Raleigh and continues to the Northeast, increased 41 percent from 18,417 to 25,989."

"From October 2007 through March 2008, ridership on the Piedmont was up nearly 28 percent and the Carolinian was up more than 20 percent. Passenger revenues increased by almost 23 percent for the Piedmont and by almost 24 percent for the Carolinian."

"Continued infrastructure improvements on the Raleigh to Charlotte route have reduced the scheduled travel time to 3 hours and 9 minutes, including station stops. NCDOT has also partnered with local communities to build new or restore existing historic train stations along the corridor."

Patrick Simmons, head of the Rail Division, added in an e-mail, "Price of gas+having the service in place (nice cars, stations, improving reliability and competitive travel times) makes this