Jim Hunt Likes Debates

My former boss, Governor Jim Hunt, takes issue with my blog “Do Away with Debates.”

He called to say, “We need to have joint appearances, where people get to compare the candidates – side by side.” 

He added, “Of course, then you’ve got to have the power in a moderator to handle it, cut them off, cut them slam off. It can be done, so we can see them and see how they react.”

Governor Hunt knows something about debates. He went toe-to-toe and blow-for-blow with Senator Jesse Helms in four debates in 1984 that were the political equivalent of Ali-Frazier heavyweight fights.

The 1984 Senate race for long, hard-fought and expensive. The debates riveted voters’ attention.

To negotiate debate rules, Governor Hunt appointed his long-time friend Phil Carlton, a former state Supreme Court Justice, with me as the junior partner. Helms picked the late Tom Ellis, his political godfather, and Carter Wrenn.

When the four of us met with representatives of the N.C. Broadcasters Association, there was no love lost in the room. As Carter said in a Spectrum News podcast he and I did recently, “We looked across the table and saw devils.”

So did we.

But a funny thing happened as the talks went on. The broadcasters wanted a format that highlighted their on-camera talent. The two campaigns wanted more free-flowing faceoffs that turned the candidates loose.

Gradually, the “devils” in both campaigns found we agreed with each other, not the broadcasters.

We invited the broadcasters to step outside. The four of us quickly agreed on rules. The candidates could even ask each other questions. The broadcasters weren’t happy, but they had no choice.

The debates were rock-‘em, sock-‘em affairs. Hunt and Helms were tough, experienced candidates. They knew the issues, had strong disagreements and relished the chance to confront each other.

First Hunt-Helms debate

But they didn’t interrupt each other, or the moderators.  

After Carter Wrenn and I later became good friends, he told me that Hunt surprised Helms and his campaign in the first debate. The Governor was quicker, tougher and more aggressive than they expected.

Senator Helms was deflated afterward. Carter was primed to lay into him for his passive performance. But Helms disarmed him; he said he was so disappointed in himself that he hated going home and facing his wife.

Helms went to work and got better. For the next debate, he prepared a set of folders on each issue and took them to the stage. Whenever an issue came up, Helms pulled out a folder with the key points he wanted to make.

There were some tense and dramatic moments.

During an exchange over veterans’ benefits, Helms suddenly asked, “And what war did you fight in, Jim?” An angry Hunt shot back, “I don’t like you questioning my patriotism.”

(An aside: Helms spent World War II safely stateside as a Navy recruiting officer. Years later, somebody mentioned to then-Senator Terry Sanford that he and Helms were always on opposite sides of issues. Sanford, who was wounded in combat and decorated for bravery in Europe, said, “Yep, and in World War II we were on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean.”)

Helms brought up the national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr., which he opposed and filibustered against on the Senate floor:

“Now, which is more important to you, Governor, getting yourself elected with the enormous black vote, or protecting the Constitution and the people of North Carolina.”

Hunt was ready:

“Jesse, which is most important to you, getting reelected or having the people of this state upset and fighting and set at odds against each other?…This is 1984. This is a progressive state. We’re not going back now and open those old wounds.”

It was a great moment, but Hunt paid a price. A poll we commissioned after the election showed an almost 100% correlation between voters’ opinions on the King holiday and how they voted. Hunt narrowly lost the election, even though he ran far ahead of Walter Mondale, who was getting swamped by Ronald Reagan.

Carter says their campaigns’ polls showed Hunt won the first three debates and the fourth was a tie.

There’s another reason to heed Governor Hunt on debates. When he was Lieutenant Governor from 1973 to 1977, he presided over the state Senate. He never left the podium, because he knew some Senators would try to take away his power to appoint committees. (They finally did that in 1989.)

From the chair, Hunt had the chance to watch floor debates: “I saw what works and what doesn’t.” And he used the gavel to keep order.

Accordingly, I amend my position on debates. Next time, have Jim Hunt moderate them.

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