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For books on N.C. politics, it's been a very good year

By Jack Betts
Jack Betts
Jack Betts writes on politics and life in The Carolinas for the Charlotte Observer's Editorial page.

RALEIGH This has been a good year for readers and collectors of writings about North Carolina. There's serious fodder for those who want to learn something about this state's political and cultural history.

The deepest is William Link's even-handed book about the late Jesse Helms, “Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism,” by St. Martin's Press. At about 640 pages, including notes and an index, Link's book is a thorough look at the life and times of the state's most enduring politician of the modern era. It's also a fitting companion piece to Link's earlier work about former UNC President Bill Friday, “William Friday: Power, Purpose and American Higher Education,” published in 1995 by UNC Press.

These two books are especially important because they provide deep background into two opposite and colliding strains in Tar Heel politics, education and approach to public life. Friday was the exemplar of the quiet, studious, institutional administrator who sought consensus on some troubling issues. Helms was the model of the outspoken, fiery ideologue who knew how to stir up public sentiment – often to fight things that followers of Friday might support. Those two books together provide the context without which I don't believe it's possible to understand the two strains of political thought that still wind through our state.

(And by the way: Link's book on Friday reports in some detail something barely alluded to in recent media coverage of Helms' death July 4. Helms played a role in bringing the Reagan administration to the bargaining table with North Carolina in the early 1980s to settle a long-festering dispute with the federal government over how to erase the vestiges of a once dual system of higher education in North Carolina.)

Link used to teach history at UNC Greensboro. He's now at the University of Florida.

For a broader look at North Carolina politics in the 20th century, you'd also want to read Rob Christensen's outstanding book, “The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics: the Personalities, Elections and Events That Shaped Modern North Carolina,” published late in the spring by UNC Press. It has been a popular book, and has gone through a second printing. Christensen, a reporter at the News & Observer since the early 1970s, has a nice touch for writing about the characters (and sometimes the rogues) who have populated N.C. politics over the years, and he's probably got enough material left over for yet another volume on the people and the public issues that informed the state's voters in the 20th century. The thing about this book is that you don't have to read it all at once – but if you want to, the writing breaks down events into easily digestible episodes.

One I haven't read yet but look forward to is Karl Campbell's new book about the late U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin, whose pursuit of the truth contributed to President Richard Nixon's decline and resignation. “Senator Sam Ervin: Last of the Founding Fathers” was published by Caravan Books. The author teaches history at Appalachian State University in Boone, and the reviews I've seen mark it as a worthy addition to Tar Heel literature.

But for sheer fun, I'm guessing that “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue” by John Shelton Reed and his wife, Dale Volberg Reed, with William McKinney will be a popular read and big on the gift list this Christmas. Published by UNC Press, it won't be out until this fall, but I've had a look at the proofs and it's genuine Reed – informative, fast-paced, thorough and filled with facts. I was reading through it the other evening and could have sworn I smelled the sharp, smoky aroma of pork slowly cooking over hickory coals. Shoot, just reading barbecue expert Keith Allen's description of why hickory is the best wood for barbecue made me want to dash out and grabbed a chopped tray with slaw and plenty of that sweet tea, thank you very much.

Jack Betts is an Observer associate editor: jbetts@charlotteobserver.com

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