Too many politicians and activists resort too often to personal insults and character assassination rather than crafting, articulating, and defending a substantive agenda for addressing difficult issues. Too many desperate media outlets resort to giving such insults wall-to-wall coverage as a means of drawing audience and staying relevant.
I’m all for setting higher standards in political discourse. My only objection is that I don’t think nastiness is a recent invention, either in national politics or right here in North Carolina. Having recently completed Catalyst, my biography of former Gov. Jim Martin — available from your local bookseller, online retailer, or BlairPub.com — I was struck by the rough-and-tumble nature of past political controversies in our state.
Take waste disposal. No, really, bear with me. During the 1980s and early 1990s, few issues generated as much attention, controversy, and wildly apocalyptic rhetoric as waste disposal. There were actually two different issues in play. One was what to do with hazardous waste — materials, produced by chemical manufacturing or other industrial processes, that could not be disposed of in regular landfills. The other involved low-level radioactive waste (not spent fuel rods) produced by nuclear-power plants, hospitals, and other institutions.
Jim Martin was a Princeton-trained chemist who spent a dozen years in Congress before his election as North Carolina’s governor in 1984. During the 1984-85 transition, outgoing Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt briefed Martin on the search for a disposal site for the radioactive waste. “If you want me to go ahead and do it before you come in, I will,” Hunt told Martin. The Republican declined the kind offer. “I’ll handle that one,” he said.
North Carolina joined two regional compacts to address the problem. As it turned out, the state became obligated to build facilities for both kinds of waste. Over the next several years, state panels met to weigh the options, study potential locations, and come up with site plans that could pass muster with local communities, legislators, and officials from other states.
By May 1990, the hazardous-waste commission had narrowed the field to a Granville County site and another on the Iredell-Rowan county line. Many North Carolinians living near the sites resisted the decision. Some protested by physically obstructing access to them, preventing state officials from conducting the necessary soil tests. Local judges also imposed temporary restraining orders.
In response, Martin approved rule changes in early August 1990 to allow commission director Darrell Hinnant to continue the process without the soil testing. That led to other lawsuits and injunctions. Opposition to the incinerator grew intensely personal. In Granville County, hundreds of opponents staged boisterous rallies and even hanged the governor in effigy. At an October rally in Butner, protesters held up signs bearing such slogans as “Dump Toxic Jim” and “Hitler marched innocent people into an incinerator — Martin and Hinnant want to bring an incinerator to innocent people.”
In Iredell County, the location of the Martin family home on Lake Norman, the opposition was intense, as well, albeit less grotesque. One Statesville activist called Martin a “lame-brained, lame-duck Republican governor.” A local musical group called the Southland Ramblers recorded a protest song, “The Ballad of Jim’s Incinerator,” set to the tune of the theme from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” One verse went like this: “Jim went out of state and joined a compact / He thought he could fool us and we couldn’t react. / He thought we were country clods, maybe even fools. / But he can’t even beat us by changing the rules.”
In the end, neither facility was ever constructed. Two separate rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court saw to that, by lifting a federal mandate regarding radioactive waste and by striking down attempts by South Carolina and other states to ban imports of hazardous waste from states (such as North Carolina) without disposal sites.
Do these past disputes remind you of any current controversies? While there’s nothing new about turning political disagreements into personal abuse, there’s nothing productive about it, either. Let’s do better.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation. Follow him @JohnHoodNC.