Our two great Robert Morgans


D.G. Martin - Contributing Columnist



North Carolinians of my generation have been blessed with two important Robert Morgans. One is the mountain-born-and-raised and acclaimed writer who is featured this week on North Carolina Bookwatch for his latest novel, “Chasing the North Star.”

The other, the former U.S. senator, died on Saturday.

My dream had been that author Morgan would write a book about Sen. Morgan. Author Morgan has shown he can write beautifully and authoritatively about historical figures. Remember, for example, “Boone,” his wonderful biography of Daniel Boone, and “Lions of the West,” his collection of studies about Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman, David Crockett, Sam Houston, James K. Polk, Winfield Scott, Kit Carson, Nicholas Trist and John Quincy Adams.

A few years ago in this column I raised this question: Who is the most interesting North Carolina political figure yet to be the subject of a major biography?

Back then my nomination for the most interesting potential biography was former Sen. Morgan.

Here, slightly revised, is how I explained my suggestion.

Maybe my decision was influenced by a canoe trip a group of us made with the aging former senator down the Cape Fear River from Lillington to his home a few miles downstream. On the way down the river I heard for the first time some stories about North Carolina politicians.

But it is not only the stories that make me wish for a good biography of Morgan. A close look at his career could help us begin to see an answer to the question people so often ask about North Carolina. How could the same people have chosen to have a conservative like Jesse Helms and a liberal like Terry Sanford serving them in the U.S. Senate at the same time?

You could come close to an answer if you could understand how Morgan could have been an enthusiastic supporter of liberal Frank Graham in his 1950 U.S. Senate campaign and then manage the 1960 gubernatorial campaign for segregationist candidate Dr. I. Beverly Lake.

Or if you could figure out how Morgan developed a conservative reputation as a state senator and then, when elected state attorney general in 1968, made the office a vigorous consumer advocacy agency.

Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974 as a moderate, with considerable support from conservatives, he was defeated six years later by a campaign that defined him as an ultra-liberal. A few years later Morgan worked for liberal Walter Mondale’s campaign for president.

So what was Morgan — a conservative or a liberal?

I think his biographer will find he was both, and he was neither — like most North Carolinians.

Maybe the stories will help. Morgan always felt a great affection for Beverly Lake, but he said that he tried to get Lake to take a more moderate position on school segregation in the 1960 gubernatorial campaign. Morgan remembers, “Dr. Lake said, ‘Now Robert, you have to remember that it is in the middle of the road where you are most likely to get hit and killed.’”

Morgan thought people of different persuasions could work together if they could put ideology aside. Morgan told me that one of legendary UNC playwright and professor Paul Green’s cousins was very conservative even by Harnett County standards. Nevertheless, when Morgan brought the liberal Sen. George McGovern to Harnett County, Green’s cousin and McGovern ate breakfast together at the local café. Later Green’s cousin told Morgan that he might have voted for McGovern for president if he had only known him before.

Good stories and a possible answer to why North Carolina has both a conservative and a liberal face could make author Robert Morgan’s biography of Sen. Robert Morgan an important contribution to the understanding of our state’s history, and a great read.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.

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D.G. Martin

Contributing Columnist

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