HALFWAY THROUGH a televised debate in the 1984 North Carolina U. S. Senate race, Governor James Hunt was twitting incumbent Senator Jesse Helms for voting against veterans' pensions. Suddenly Helms interrupted:
Hunt: "I don't think you're going to fool the people of North Carolina -- "
Helms: "Which war did you serve in?"
Hunt : "I did not serve in a war."
Hunt: "Senator Helms, now wait just a minute . . . "
And the needle was in, leaving Hunt sputtering and discombobulated while Helms -- a political acupuncturist with a remarkable feel for the tender points -- skipped on.
Retired newspaper editor William D. Snider zeroes in on such moments in a blow-by-blow quick history of the widely publicized "southern-fried back-alley brawl." Unlike such journalists as Elizabeth Drew who draw on their own reporting, Snider stays in the background, relying heavily on published sources. Thus the book takes on a newsreel flavor -- fact-filled and dramatic but not groundbreaking.
Snider writes with snap, offering particularly sharp profiles of the candidates. He downplays the assumption that the race was an epic struggle between Old South and New. Rather, he sees both Hunt and Helms as hard-to-stereotype political gladiators engaged in contrasting but contemporary forms of the art.
Helms, a zealous apostle of the New Right, had, Snider points out, "few of the trappings of patrician Old South culture. His brassy, often pious conservatism lauded the nostalgia of the good old days; but it mainly offered a mixture of anti-Communist, anti-government rhetoric with occasional evangelistic religious overtones."
Hunt, renowned as a progressive career politician with a record of steamrolling his opposition, "constantly played to the majority, wherever it might be." He "dealt cautiously with the conventional liberal symbols of the New South" as he supported the Grenada invasion, favored the MX missile and the B1 bomber, opposed the nuclear freeze and advocated voluntary school prayer.
In Snider's chronicle, Hunt comes across as a canny politician. But Helms is an uncanny one -- with the deadly knack of maneuvering foes onto his ground and then provoking an uneven fight.
So it went in the dirty, desperate and unprecedentedly expensive senatorial campaign.
Helms ploughed a fortune into confrontational ads branding Hunt as a mealy-mouthed "Mondale liberal" with supposed links to "homosexuals . . . labor union bosses" and "crooks."
INCREASINGLY defensive and with his early 20-point lead skidding, Hunt swatted more and more furiously at Helms's record. But his late ill-fated effort to "out- Jesse Jesse" simply underlined Helms' capture of the offensive.
When Hunt tried to attack, Helms patronized him, once saying that the governor "knows as much about foreign policy as a pig does about roller skating." When Hunt unleashed his own tough-guy ads (criticizing Helms' policies while displaying bodies in Central America), Helms retorted smugly, "One of my daughters said, 'Daddy, does the governor have no shame?'"
Nothing in Snider's account seems so depressing as the campaign's ugly smell of racism: Helms baiting Hunt about the Rev. Jesse Jackson, or filibustering against the proposed holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King (to the reward of rising standing in the polls); Democrats scurrying to sign up black voters while Republicans race to register rural fundamentalists.
North Carolina has long benefited from what authors Jack Bass and Walter DeVries, in Transformation of Southern Politics, call the state's "progressive myth." Yet it is a state with an unsettled soul. The forward-looking pace of its Sunbelt-ripened cities and the ivied liberalism of Chapel Hill commingle with an unreconstructed hardline still prevalent in its mountains and rural flatlands. Unfortunately, these divisions fueled the Helms-Hunt race. What could have been an eloquent contest of alternative philosophies turned into an unseemly mud-wrestling match, trading on stereotypes and polarization. Helms' sharply negative pounding set a tone Hunt first sought to avoid, then tried futilely to match.
What effect all this had -- and will continue to have -- is hard to say. The closeness of the vote (Helms won by 86,000 out of 2.2 million, probably because of Reagan's coattails) left hanging tantalizing questions about race, radicalism and the modern electorate. Was this an affirmation of Helms' philosophy, or a tribute to his lacerating, megabuck ad blitz? Was it overheated politics-as-usual, or the herald of renewed social discord?
Snider spends ittle time exploring these issues. While he crisply traces the campaign with a journalist's eye for detail, there is less of the historian's deeper formulation. Perhaps because of tight deadlines, Snider supplies lots of raw material but doesn't construct them into larger themes and relationships.
Beyond the crackle of the campaign trail, the Helms-Hunt race raised unpleasant, unresolved issues. Like a front-row seat at a ball game, Snider's book provides a vivid close-up of the action, but it misses some of the sweep and overview that a little distance helps provide.