Buncombe Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Rice Reynolds

Buncombe Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Rice Reynolds

by Julian M. Pleasants


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Robert Rice Reynolds (1884-1963), U.S. senator from North Carolina from 1933 to 1945, was one of the most eccentric politicians in American history. His travels, his five marriages, his public faux pas, and his flamboyant campaigns provided years of amusement for his constituents. This political biography rescues Reynolds from his cartoon-character reputation, however, by explaining his political appeal and highlighting his genuine contributions without overlooking his flaws.

Julian Pleasants argues that Reynolds must be understood in the context of Depression-era North Carolina. He capitalized on the discontent of the poverty-stricken lower class by campaigning in tattered clothes while driving a ramshackle Model T—a sharp contrast to his wealthy, chauffeur-driven opponent, incumbent senator Cam Morrison. In office, Reynolds supported Roosevelt's New Deal. Although he was not pro-Nazi, his isolationist stance and his association with virulent right-wingers enraged his constituents and ultimately led to his withdrawal from politics.

Pleasants reveals Reynolds to be a showman of the first order, a skilled practitioner of class politics, and a unique southern politician—the only one who favored the New Deal while advocating isolationist views.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807879085
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 07/14/2009
Series: The James Sprunt Studies in History and Political Science , #63
Edition description: 1
Pages: 376
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Julian M. Pleasants, coauthor of Frank Porter Graham and the 1950 Senate Race in North Carolina, is professor of history and director of the Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.

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Buncombe Bob

The Life and Times of Robert Rice Reynolds
By Julian M. Pleasants

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2000 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-5064-0


Robert Rice Reynolds, United States senator from 1933 to 1945, was an anomaly in the politics of both North Carolina and the South. In a bastion of Victorian morality, he married five times. In a state characterized by staid and conservative politics, Reynolds was known for his outlandish antics. Although he ran for office in a dry state deeply committed to prohibition, he was a "wet" who advocated a return to drinking. In a South characterized by conservative politics, Reynolds was an ardent New Dealer. In a region that supported a military buildup and the concept of war, Reynolds was a sincere isolationist.

As a rule, U.S. senators from the Tar Heel State in the twentieth century have been conservative, solid citizens generally representing V. O. Key Jr.'s "progressive plutocracy," providing little flash to state politics. When Bob Reynolds launched his political career in 1932, it quickly became evident that he was cut from a different cloth. In a state bored by the pedestrian presentation of political views, Bob Reynolds was a breath of fresh air. An undistinguished lawyer from Asheville, North Carolina, and a perennial failure in bids for elective office, Our Bob, as he was known to his supporters, won an astounding upset over incumbent senator Cameron Morrison in the senatorial election of 1932. Reynolds's 1932 campaign, described by one observer as "a prolonged vaudeville," captured the imagination of Tar Heel voters. A master showman, the tall, handsome Reynolds motored about the state in a ramshackle Ford while wearing tattered clothing, picturing his wealthy opponent as a glutton who made his way around Washington in a chauffeured limousine. Reynolds presented himself as a poor man of the people fighting against the corporate interests who had spawned the depression though their greed. Reynolds's huge victory over Morrison in the Democratic runoff (65.4 percent of the vote), the largest majority ever obtained in a North Carolina Democratic primary, stunned the experts. One newspaper called the win "probably without parallel for sensation in the political life of North Carolina."

While in the Senate, Reynolds served as chairman of the District of Columbia Committee as well as chairman of the vitally important Military Affairs Committee during World War II. His isolationist votes during the 1930s had an important impact on debates over American neutrality. Moreover, the elevation of the isolationist Reynolds to chair of the Military Affairs Committee led to one of the most serious challenges to the Senate's system of seniority. After war was declared, however, he cooperated fully with the Roosevelt administration while working assiduously to pass the legislation necessary for winning the war.

In foreign policy, Reynolds is best described as a demagogic isolationist. He lashed out at alien criminals and increased immigration while voting against American membership in the World Court. He was the only southerner to vote against Lend Lease. Meanwhile, Reynolds began his congressional career by voting for almost all New Deal legislation and was a loyal supporter of Roosevelt until 1938. He sought reform of American society and improvement in the daily life of the average American and thought government could provide for the economic and social welfare of the masses with programs such as Social Security and the Wagner Act. Reynolds saw the inequity in society and understood the frustration and alienation of the have-nots.

In his second term, however, Reynolds abandoned New Deal idealism and concluded his career as an antilabor, anti-Communist states' righter. During the latter part of his career, Reynolds embarked on a series of ill-considered associations with such controversial individuals as Father Charles Coughlin, Gerald L. K. Smith, George Deatherage, Nazi propagandist George Sylvester Viereck, and Prescott Dennett, a paid German propaganda agent. In addition, he created two nativistic and xenophobic organizations, the American Vindicators and the Nationalist Party. Reynolds's fervent isolationism and his relationship with and praise for such radicals as Gerald L. K. Smith led to charges that he was pro-Nazi. Moreover, his lack of discretion, poor judgment, anti-Semitism, unsavory companions, and unyielding adherence to noninterventionism exposed his nativism and precipitated a rapid decline in his popularity.

In November 1943, "Buncombe Bob" Reynolds chose not to run for a third term. Reynolds withdrew, despite his love of the trappings and prestige of the U.S. Senate, because he would have been badly defeated by the popular governor, Clyde R. Hoey. His inflexible isolationist stance, his opposition to the United Nations, the pro-Nazi charges, and his dereliction of senatorial duties for world travels had destroyed his political career.

Bob Reynolds left office in January 1945, after twelve tumultuous years in the Senate during a momentous era in American history. His last hurrah was a halfhearted entry into the 1950 North Carolina Senate race, the most divisive in the state's history. The old warhorse gained just enough votes to deny Senator Frank Graham the nomination. The election of the conservative Willis Smith, whose campaign was assisted by Jesse Helms, altered the direction of the state away from the more liberal policies of Graham and Governor W. Kerr Scott toward a more conservative philosophy of government. After retiring from politics, the former senator spent his final days traveling and raising his daughter. The colorful and unique senator died on February 13, 1963, at age seventy-eight.

The purpose of this book is to flesh out Bob Reynolds's unique political career and to correct previous stereotypes and mistaken historical interpretations. V. O. Key Jr., in his 1949 book Southern Politics, dismissed Reynolds as "erratic and irrelevant" and a "clown," but he was more substantial than that. Journalists Drew Pearson and Robert S. Allen derisively referred to him as the "Tar Heel Führer" because of his alleged praise of Hitler. This opinion, while containing a modicum of truth, does not accurately depict Bob Reynolds's views or his career. Reynolds was too complex an individual to have his political life described in such simplistic terms.

Because of his campaign style, most observers of the day described "Buncombe Bob" as a demagogue. Ray Arsenault, in "The Folklore of Southern Demagoguery," identified Bob Reynolds as a fanatical demagogue who came to power during the depression while placing his trust in the politics of paranoia. He classified Reynolds as an American fascist, southern style, who offered a radical, right-wing alternative to the New Deal. But as I will show, Arsenault erred in describing Reynolds as a fanatic and a fascist. Reynolds did not use race baiting in his campaigns, although he favored the status quo in civil rights. He did not rage against the Jews and Catholics in his political races, although he displayed a strong anti-Semitism in private letters and in his publications. While he appealed to the emotions of his followers, his entreaties often relied on reason. He did not promise everything to everybody but was simply a master of oratory and flamboyant campaigning. Like his contemporaries, he mainly wanted to get elected. In short, he was a unique southern demagogue in a region where demagoguery was almost always defined by race. Reynolds was certainly no statesman, but he did not follow James K. Vardaman, Theodore G. Bilbo, and "Cotton Ed" Smith on the race issue.

In political terms, perhaps Bob Reynolds could best be characterized as a "populist demagogue." Reynolds, like the Populists, recognized that the average person was vulnerable to the power of large corporations and he favored federal government intervention to regulate the banks, to provide cheap credit, and to democratize the country by returning government to "the people." But Our Bob also displayed some of the more negative aspects of Populism. He was prone to scapegoating, spouted unrealistic conspiracy theories, and exhibited the xenophobia and nativism characteristic of some Populists.

Still, Reynolds never described himself as a Populist or as a progressive despite his concurrence with many of their views. Unlike the Populists, Reynolds did not lead a political protest movement; instead, he was a lone maverick seeking office. While he railed against the rich, he failed to propose any concrete program to solve the ills of society. He merely seized on the fact that large numbers of people felt forgotten and were frightened by the severity of the Great Depression. Bob Reynolds did not concern himself primarily with interest group politics; he focused on the politics of class-a righteous war against the gluttons of privilege. Speaking out against the social and economic evils of the day, Reynolds also rebelled against the established Democratic hierarchy in North Carolina, single-handedly challenging V. O. Key's "progressive plutocrats" and the powerful O. Max Gardner machine, soundly whipping both in his senatorial campaigns.

Finally, in this book I try to explain how Bob Reynolds, a man of limited experience and abilities, was elected to two terms in the United States Senate. His rise to power says much about southern politics and the attitudes of North Carolinians in the 1930s. In studying Reynolds's unique positions as a southern New Dealer, an isolationist, and a nonracist demagogue, the reader will hopefully understand the complexities of southern politics during this era.

I have tried, as much as possible, to write this biography from primary sources. One must refer to secondary works for background information, clarification, and transition, but I limited those references whenever possible. The secondary literature, however, was most helpful, especially relatively recent books on Charles A. Lindbergh, Huey Long, Gerald L. K. Smith, Father Charles Coughlin, Theodore Bilbo, and George Sylvester Viereck as well as a spate of books on isolationism and foreign policy during World War II. This book, however, is not about the New Deal, isolationism, or World War II. The focus is always on Bob Reynolds and his career.

In researching this book, I had to rely essentially on correspondence with colleagues, interviews, and newspapers because Senator Reynolds left no congressional papers. According to the Library of Congress and friends, Reynolds destroyed his senatorial papers when he left the Senate. No one is quite sure why he did so, but the prevailing opinion is that he had no use for them. His daughter and friends claim he did not destroy them because of derogatory or embarrassing material but because Reynolds was upset with the end of his senatorial career and simply did not want to be reminded of his years in Washington. The destruction of Reynolds's papers, while unfortunate, was not very significant. The Reynolds family, especially his daughter, Frances Reynolds Oertling, kept a scrapbook of letters and clippings. While small, this source contained some important and otherwise unavailable items. If a study of the papers of his associates in the Senate is any indication, and I think it is, then Reynolds wrote very few letters of any substance. A search through the manuscript collections of his colleagues yielded meager results. In the letters uncovered, Reynolds rarely discussed legislative issues or speeches he had made, nor did he often supply reasons for his votes. The letters he wrote to colleagues were flowery and complimentary; letters to constituents dealt with individual problems and generally contained a request for political support.

Reynolds talked constantly, honestly, and openly to the press and provided full explanations for his votes and decisions as a senator. With Bob Reynolds there was very little deceit or deception. What you saw was what you got. Thus I placed a strong emphasis on both state and national newspapers. Frequently I allowed Bob Reynolds to speak for himself, through interviews or letters, and did not always evaluate his often controversial statements. I leave that assessment to the reader.


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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. The Early Years
Chapter 2. The Democratic Primary of 1932
Chapter 3. Culmination of the Dream
Chapter 4. Early Years in the Senate, 1933-1935
Chapter 5. Movie Stars, Aliens, and Neutrality
Chapter 6. Reelection
Chapter 7. Neutrality, 1939
Chapter 8. Vindicators and Nazis
Chapter 9. 1939-1940
Chapter 10. Guns and Diamonds
Chapter 11. The War Years
Chapter 12. The End of a Career
Chapter 13. The Last Hurrah


Bob Reynolds and the UNC football team, 1906
Bob Reynolds in the UNC yearbook, 1906
Reynolds's platform on prohibition for the 1932 Senate campaign
Bob Reynolds and his first wife, 1932
Reynolds's campaign stationery emphasizing the prohibition issue
Senator Bob Reynolds, May 1934
Bob Reynolds and his staff, December 1938 999 Vindicator organization's insignia
First issue of The American Vindicator, April 1939
Reynolds as world traveler, 1923
"Everybody Out of Step but Our Boy Bob," cartoon, 1941
Reynolds chairs a meeting of the Military Affairs Committee, ca. 1942
Campaign photo from the 1950 Senate race
Bob Reynolds, Frank P. Graham, and Willis Smith during the 1950 campaign
"Did You Know That Over 28% of the Population of North Carolina Is Colored?"

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

[Reynolds had] a fascinating and entertaining, if not particularly edifying, career, and Pleasants recounts it in straightforward and effective fashion.—Journal of Southern History

As a biography of a second-tier politician, this volume succeeds admirably. The author's research into primary sources is extensive, his coverage of Reynolds's public career comprehensive, and his prose clear and jargon free. The account of the senator's colorful private life, including his many marriages, is also both interesting and humorous.—North Carolina Historical Review

What Pleasants has delivered is a meticulously researched, carefully delivered and thoughtfully crafted assessment of Richard Rice Reynolds and his place in North Carolina history.—Charlotte Observer

Pleasants masterfully chronicles this swaggering character who demagogued his way across Depression-era North Carolina with a populist brand of politics and a knowing wink.—Raleigh News & Observer

Out of the Great Depression came Senator Bob Reynolds, one of the most unusual political figures to have risen so high in North Carolina. Julian Pleasants presents a clear-headed account of Reynolds's out-of-the-ordinary life, so full of contradictions. And, in doing so, Pleasants demonstrates a deft facility for bringing out the drama of old campaigns and debates.—Ferrel Guillory, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Buncombe Bob tackles a difficult subject and places him in the context of his times. North Carolina Senator Robert Rice Reynolds was a colorful, controversial Depression-era politician who was usually dismissed by a broad range of critics as a zany, a buffoon, and even a bigot. Although Reynolds left few personal papers, Pleasants has done extensive research in Reynolds's congressional papers and the leading newspapers of the day and produced a critical, compelling biography. As a result, Buncombe Bob complements the writings of V. O. Key and Robert Luthin and the standard histories of the Tarheel State.—Bruce Clayton, Allegheny College

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