By Julian M. Pleasants and Augustus M. Burns III

University of North Carolina Press

356 pp. $34.95; paperback, $19.95

THE TITLE of this study in recent history and political science is as deadly as that of the dullest dissertation, but pay no attention to it. Beneath the stupefying literalism of Frank Porter Graham and the 1950 Senate Race in North Carolina lies one of the great tales of postwar American politics, now told for the first time at book length -- told, all things considered, with admirable perception and even, from time to time, a bit of panache.

It's a pity that the book didn't manage to work its way into the stores a couple of weeks ago, for the Democratic senatorial primary and runoff in 1950 between Frank Porter Graham and Willis Smith bear striking parallels to the general election that ended last month between Harvey Gantt and Jesse Helms. In both instances the progressive reputation of North Carolina came up against the considerably more conservative reality, and in both cases reality won; had Gantt and his followers studied their state's history a little more closely, they might have been a little less surprised at the turn the campaign took in its final days. They thought that where Graham had failed, they could triumph; what they failed to see was that Graham's defeat contained the seeds of their own.

It is fully four decades since Graham fell to Smith, and both men have been dead for years, but the emotions their race aroused are still raw and bitter, not merely among surviving partisans but among the heirs to both traditions; the 1950 contest, Julian Pleasants and Augustus Burns write, is "a centerpiece in North Carolina political folklore." On one side are the North Carolina liberals whose guru remains Graham, who left the presidency of the University of North Carolina to accept appointment to the U.S. Senate in 1950; their leaders today include Gantt and Terry Sanford, a Graham aide in 1950 and himself now a member of the Senate. On the other side are the Tar Heel conservatives, for whom Willis Smith was the rallying point 40 years ago but who won their own signal triumph in 1972 with the election to the Senate of Smith's former campaign aide, Jesse Helms.

It is a tangled tale -- to wit, Sanford and Helms, youthful foes, now together representing their state in Washington -- and it may be that one must have enjoyed a prolonged period of residency in North Carolina to appreciate all of its labyrinthine twists and turns. But for any student of American politics and social character it is a cautionary tale, one that strips away the thin defenses idealism brings to the political arena while at the same time it shows how fears and animosities can be aroused even in an electorate that would prefer to overcome them.

Frank Porter Graham was among the most utopian and liberal of men, revered by many during his lifetime as a saint and canonized as such since his death in 1972: a kind, gentle man, passionate about world peace and, by the standards of his time and place, about human and civil rights. He was also boundlessly naive and, as Pleasants and Burns amply demonstrate in their sympathetic but clinical study, deficient in judgment; he readily accepted affiliations with left-wing groups of lofty rhetoric and dubious character, and took stands on public issues most charitably described as impolitic. Into the bargain he knew absolutely nothing about elective politics but entered it in the conviction -- not devoid of its own perverse arrogance -- that goodness alone would yield its reward, that the compromises and accommodations of political life were beneath one so blessed with rectitude.

His opponent, Willis Smith, was a lawyer from Raleigh who entered the Democratic senatorial primary only after other conservatives had shied away from confronting Graham, whose popularity in the state was great. Smith was a member of the "progressive conservative" old guard that recently had taken its lumps from the rambunctious new governor, Kerr Scott; Pleasants and Burns are at pains to point out how factional conflicts within the Democratic Party had as much to do with the Graham-Smith race as its more notorious racial elements, though this will be of only passing interest to readers outside North Carolina. Smith was also a decent man, "a person of ability and integrity," who seems to have been genuinely appalled by the smear campaign mounted on his behalf although, as one Tar Heel put it at campaign's end, "There is no moral distinction between the thief and the witting recipient of stolen property in my ethical dictionary."

Whatever Smith's real feelings may have been, they will go forever unknown. What we do know is that Graham came within a hair of winning the nomination in the first primary, only to lose it by a thumping margin after a runoff campaign that consisted largely of "whispers, rumors, dirty tricks, deception and fraud" stirred up on Smith's behalf by "local campaign committees and individuals who were now warning voters of an impending racial Armageddon." Observers of 1990 politics who were offended by Helms' 11th-hour anti-Gantt advertisements will find the scare tactics of 1950 beyond their comprehension; "most of this activity was local, carried out by rumormongers and frightened people beyond the reach of logic and reason."

By the time the second vote was cast, "the race had captured national attention as a Southern referendum on the Truman administration, a litmus test on the status of race relations in the Upper South and the effectiveness of Communist bashing." What it said on the first count remains unclear, since Smith himself sought "to keep America liberal, Progressive and yet sane in its Progress." But its message on the second was plain: Playing on racial fears still paid off at the ballot box, and there was a bright future for the new politics of strident anti-communism.

The racial aspects of the campaign seem to have come as a genuine surprise to many North Carolinians, and not merely those of a liberal disposition. Seduced perhaps by the eminent political scientist V.O. Key and others, who played on variations of Key's "progressive plutocracy" theme, Tar Heels of many ideological stripes were united in "the belief that North Carolina's race relations constituted something of a national model of harmonious coexistence, when, in fact, racial tension was becoming more pronounced and more open." Thus the campaign against Frank Graham came as a real shock to the system, because it forced North Carolinians to confront a side to themselves they'd previously ignored; they may have loved "Dr. Frank," but when push came to nasty shove they threw him out, for the simple reason that they were scared.

In some measure they still are; the last-minute appeals to racial fears that Jesse Helms engineered, combined with alarms that Harvey Gantt's supporters managed to raise all on their own, provided useful evidence that North Carolina, like the rest of the nation, has yet to reach its millennium. Gantt's supporters will say in rebuttal that it surely is several large steps closer, and of course they are right; but the legacy of Smith-Graham lives on, and those who fail to study its lessons will pay the price -- and not, it must be added, in North Carolina alone.