Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Buncombe Bob

I’m not so much a serious student of North Carolina history as a curious fan of the subject. But when I came across this photo of a Tar Heel senator, I knew it spoke volumes:

Jean Harlow plays close-up scene with North Carolina Senator Washington D.C. Reaching the Capitol today to attend the president's birthday ball, Jean Harlow, siren of the screen, paid her first visit to the United States Capitol. After greeting the Senators, the Blonde actress pulled Senator Robert Reynolds, Democrat of North Carolina, in for a close-up of her screen lovemaking. [Library of Congress caption]

Reynolds gained more attention for the Harlow kiss than for anything he accomplished as a lawmaker during his first term in the Senate.

Robert Rice Reynolds was born in Asheville June 18, 1884 and served in the United States Senate from 1933 - 1945.

The North Carolina History Project picks up the story of one colorful politician:

Reynolds was an unabashed isolationist and Anglophobe, whose foreign policy positions, not economic ones, alienated him from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Reynolds’s notorious womanizing and five marriages, opposition to Prohibition, flamboyant actions, and non-racist demagoguery set him apart from the straight-laced Tar Heel politicians…

An unlikely candidate in the 1932 Democratic primary (he had lost several elections for public office, with the exception of prosecuting attorney) Reynolds, with the highest percentage in North Carolina history (65.4%), overwhelmingly and surprisingly upset the incumbent Cameron Morrison for a U. S. Senate seat. Exploiting the economic misery of Tar Heels during the Great Depression, Reynolds used class war rhetoric, portraying his opponent as a chauffeured-driven, caviar-eating, Big Business-backed plutocrat, out of touch with the electorate. Still campaigning in his worn-out Model T Ford against Prohibition (in a dry state), immigration, trusts, tariffs, and Wall Street, Reynolds easily defeated his Republican opponent in the general election.

In his first term, the now expensively-attired Reynolds remained loyal to FDR’s New Deal, for he believed it provided economic salvation for his constituents by means of relief and much-needed jobs. Fully aware of Roosevelt’s popularity, the pragmatic senator, for example, endorsed the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) because it provided jobs for thousands of North Carolinians who constructed the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A Keynesian redistributionist eager to tax the rich and regulate the economy, Reynolds also supported Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA)--which raised tobacco prices….

During the course of his twelve years in the Senate, Reynolds’s economic views changed from a New Deal liberalism (support for government intervention in the economy and to secure social justice) to a pro-business conservatism, but his foreign policy positions remained basically the same. His anti-communism notwithstanding, Reynolds supported Roosevelt’s recognition of the Soviet Union so that the communist nation might buy North Carolina goods. A staunch unilateralist, he opposed U. S. adherence to the World Court, for he considered it a tactic to enter the failed League of Nations. During his senatorial career, Reynolds advocated strict limits on immigration, the registration of all aliens, and the deportation of alien criminals. In particular, the nativist Reynolds deemed most aliens as a threat to American security, values, and jobs, so he co-authored the Reynolds-Starnes Bill (1936) that called for cutting immigration quotas by 90%.

An advocate of “Fortress America,” Reynolds supported a strong national defense, naval expansion, and increases in the size of the army and air force….

In January 1939, Reynolds formed the Vindicators Association, an ultra-nationalist, isolationist, nativist, anti-Semitic, and anti-communist organization which published American Vindicator to spread his opinions. Reynolds’s association with American Nazis, fascists, and anti-Semitic demagogues, including Gerald L. K. Smith and Fr. Charles E. Coughlin, revived accusations that he was pro-Nazi. But Nazi agents and propagandists, such as George Sylvester Viereck, had genuinely deceived Reynolds and other isolationist senators, when they inserted anti-British and anti-Semitic press releases into the Congressional Record and disseminated them via his franking privileges. Also, Fritz Kuhn, leader of the pro-Nazi German-American Bund, and Asheville’s leading fascist, William Dudley Pelley, and his Silver Shirts, endorsed many of Reynold’s pronouncements regarding the war; copies of American Vindicator were even sold at Bund rallies.

Due to his unpopularity at home, Reynolds decided not to seek reelection in 1944. Instead, he became national chairman of the neo-isolationist, nativist, and anti-communist American Nationalist Committee of Independent Voters, out of which came his short-lived Nationalist Party in 1945. During his last year in the Senate, Reynolds presciently warned of Soviet expansionism and voted against peacetime conscription, higher taxes, and America’s entry into the United Nations.

In October 1941, the 57 year old senator married 19 year old Evalyn Washington McLean, “the blond heiress to the Walsh-McLean fortune.” It was his fifth marriage. The only relative present for the wedding was the mother of the bride.

Following his retirement from the Senate, Reynolds briefly practiced law in Washington while living in Maryland. After the death of his wife (who overdosed on sleeping pills), he returned to Asheville (Reynolds Mountain) to raise his young daughter with the generous inheritance left by his wife….

The Old North State’s most colorful and controversial senator died on February 13, 1963. He was cremated and then buried in the family plot at Riverside Cemetery in Asheville.

[Source – ]


During his run for Senate, Reynolds attacked the “elitism” of the incumbent:

It was The Mayflower's Hotel’s caviar that proved the undoing of North Carolina Sen. Cameron Morrison. Morrison's opponent in the 1932 U.S. Senate race was Robert Reynolds, a populist lawyer from Asheville. Reynolds campaigned across North Carolina with a menu from The Mayflower as a campaign prop, noting that the hotel served caviar.

He accused Morrison, who stayed at The Mayflower, of eating fish eggs from Red Russia rather than good ol' North Carolina hen eggs. He also accused Morrison of eating eggs Benedict, which Reynolds said were cooked by Benedictine monks who were kept in the hotel for that purpose

[Source - Rob Christensen, "A Hotel With a History," Raleigh News and Observer, March 20, 2008 ]


From a review of Buncombe Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Rice Reynolds, by Julian M. Pleasants:

When Robert Rice Reynolds died in 1963, his hometown newspaper noted that he had "lived more of a life than a dozen men normally live." He had been, said the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen, a "migrant, cowboy, roustabout, adventurer, clown, bon vivant, [and] U.S. Senator," and if he had not reveled in every moment of each role, "he fooled a lot of people"

[Source -;col1 ]

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