The Whole Nation Looks at 3 North Carolina Connected Authors

Three recent books with North Carolina connections have gained national recognition. You should certainly know about them.

Tim Gautreaux is widely admired in our state’s literary community. For instance, popular Hillsborough author Lee Smith, writing about Gautreaux’s latest book, “The Missing,” said, “I have just finished, biting my nails and staying up almost all night to do so—-surely the best rip-roaring old fashioned truly American page-turner ever written! No way to say how much I admire that book. Got your attention?”

“The Missing,” like Smith’s “The Last Girls,” is set on a riverboat that travels along the Mississippi River.

But it is not the same kind of book.

Smith’s characters are contemporary middle-aged women on a luxury tourist ship remembering their college river rafting venture down the river.

Gautreaux’s tale, set in post World War I times, is dark and violent, featuring a kidnapped child and outlaw families living on swampy, nearly deserted lands near the river.

Gautreaux grew up in Louisiana’s Cajun country and has spent most of his life writing about his home state and teaching there.

So what is his North Carolina connection? His wife grew up in Raeford, and since Hurricane Katrina they have divided their time between Louisiana and a home in Ashe County. Gautreaux will be the guest on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch on Sunday at noon (February 3) and Thursday (February 7) at 5 p.m.

Three North Carolina-connected books made the New York Times “100 Notable Books-2012” list. The only non-fiction sports-related book on the list is “American Triumvirate Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, and the Modern Age of Golf.” Its author, James Dodson, is the editor of “O. Henry” and PineStraw” magazines and is an award-winning writer-in-residence at The Pilot in Southern Pines.

Snead, Nelson, and Hogan dominated professional golf in the years surrounding World War II. Ironically, all were born in 1912, and their stories, as told by Dodson, are intertwined and poignant.

Dodson says these three are responsible for the popular professional golf game that we know today. (February 10, 14)

One of North Carolina’s most successful and admired business leaders grew up in unbelievably oppressive circumstances in China during the Cultural Revolution. Starved, beaten, denied basic education, she survived and has prevailed. She tells this story of her challenging pathway to success in this country in her new book, “Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds.”

The book’s title comes from advice from Ping Fu’s “Shanghai Papa,” who told her, “Bamboo is flexible, bending with the wind but never breaking, capable of adapting to any circumstance. It suggests resilience, meaning that we have the ability to bounce back even from the most difficult times. . . . Your ability to thrive depends, in the end, on your attitude to your life circumstances. Take everything in stride with grace, putting forth energy when it is needed, yet always staying calm inwardly.”

Ping Fu is the founder and CEO of Morrisville-based Geomagic. It develops 3D software that makes possible the exact duplication of 3D objects using small machines called 3D printers. In 2005, Inc. Magazine named her Entrepreneur of the Year. A few weeks ago, Geomagic was acquired by one of its customers.

As “Bend, Not Break” moves on to the national bestseller lists, it will inspire readers and draw scrutiny from some skeptics who may find Ping Fu’s journey too amazing to be real. (February 17, 21)

Finally, are you wondering what other North Carolina connected books made the New York Times Notable Books list? They are Ben Fountain’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” set in Texas Stadium in Dallas, with a halftime performance by Beyonce, just in time for Super Bowl reading, and Wiley Cash’s “A Land More Kind than Home,” set in Madison County.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage.

A grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council provides crucial support for North Carolina Bookwatch. 

Bookwatch Classics (programs from earlier years) airs Wednesdays at 11:30 a.m. on UNC-MX, a digital cable system channel (Time Warner #172 or #4.4). This week’s (February 6) guest is David Cecelski author of “The Waterman’s Song.”

NC Democrats – Following a Lead and Finding a Leader

How are the North Carolina Democratic Party and the National Republican Party alike?

That is easy. Both lost elections this fall and do not know what to do about it.

It is particularly humiliating for North Carolina Democrats. They have to face a legislature totally dominated by Republicans, who have gerrymandered so effectively that it is hard to see how Democrats could regain control in the foreseeable future.

Thus, they are scratching their heads when they hear and read about how the Republicans lost their way and the Democrats won a great victory in November. Or, when they hear that North Carolina demographic trends favor Democrats in the long term.

So, what should the North Carolina Democrats do now?

One party activist told me they should follow the example of national Republicans and “and get some new leadership at the state and district level willing to critically evaluate our mistakes.”

He read that the Republican National Committee has a plan to review the 2012 elections to determine what worked and what did not. Their Growth and Opportunity project will address issues like “campaign mechanics and ground game, messaging, fundraising, demographic partners and allies, third-party groups, campaign finance issues, presidential primaries, lessons learned from Democratic campaign tactics.”

Assuming North Carolina Democrats are willing to follow the lead of the national Republicans, what should they be doing? Before they can follow anybody’s lead, they have to find a leader or a leadership group.

For the first time in 20 years, the Democrats do not have a governor who could claim responsibility to recruit party leadership. Nor are there senior legislative leaders up to the task.

That leaves statewide elected political leaders such as Council of State members Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, Attorney General Roy Cooper, Commissioner of Insurance Wayne Goodwin, Treasurer Janet Cowell, Auditor Beth Wood, and Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson. None of them, of course, has the clout of a governor. But all have statewide contacts and supporters. Marshall and Cooper have high-profile positions and have earned widespread respect. Goodwin and Cowell have built good networks and are potential candidates for higher office.

Any of them who garnered enthusiastic support from the others would be a good candidate to take the lead in rebuilding the party.

The other major statewide elected official is U.S. Senator Kay Hagan. In recent years, North Carolina Democratic senators have not been active in state and local party matters. They have built their own organizations and fundraising efforts.

Hagan, too, has her own support group, and she is a successful fundraiser. Arguably, she should stay out of state party politics. But she has more to gain than any other statewide elected official from a strong active party. She is up for reelection in 2014 and her prospects would be improved by an enthusiastic, well-organized, and unified party.

Once Hagan or some other individual or small group takes responsibility, the first task will be to recruit and persuade the party organization to select a party chair and executive director who will bring unity and energy to the task. For an example, they could look back to the 1980s, which were also challenging times for North Carolina Democrats. People like current Congressman David Price, popular Raleigh lawyer Wade Smith, and current public relations executive Ken Eudy were recruited to party leadership positions where they helped strengthen the organization and prepared it for a string of successes.

For today’s North Carolina Democrats, time is wasting. The 2014 campaign begins in just a few days.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Fridays at 9:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage. A grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council provides crucial support for North Carolina Bookwatch.
This week’s (December 28, 30) guest is Kevin Duffus author of “War Zone—World War II off the North Carolina Coast.” Bookwatch Classics (programs from earlier years) airs Wednesdays at 11:30 a.m. on UNC-MX, a digital cable system channel (Time Warner #172 or #4.4). Wednesday’s (January 2) past guest program features Lee Smith author of “The Last Girls.”
For a North Carolinian who is interested in World War II, here is a perfect suggestion: “War Zone—World War II off the North Carolina Coast.” Author Kevin Duffus reviews the first seven months of the war when German U-boats destroyed U.S. ships off the North Carolina coast at will. He also tells some of the human interest stories that accompanied military action in the North Carolina zone of that war. (Dec. 28, 30)

Doris Betts and Reynolds Price: Filling the empty space

Who writes for us now?

The question came up again with the death of Doris Betts, the beloved teacher and writer, a few weeks ago, reminding us that we have still not gotten used to a North Carolina without Reynolds Price although he died more than a year ago.

Even non-readers miss them. Their storytelling wisdom had spread like ripples from their readers and students into a wider audience.

Are there other North Carolina writers and teachers to take their places?

Yes. Price and Betts trained and encouraged an army of followers. Think Lee Smith. Think about her husband, Hal Crowther, whose biting essays drag us mercilessly to a painfully enhanced understanding of our society’s failures.

As reported recently in this column, two recent first novels by North Carolina natives introduced us to authors who fall squarely in the Price-Betts tradition. Wiley Cash (“A Land More Kind than Home”) and Ben Fountain (“Billy Lynn’s Last Halftime Walk”).

Unfortunately for us, both Cash and Fountain are now based away from home– Cash in West Virginia and Fountain in Texas.

But, thankfully, there is also an immigration of talent into our state, drawn here undoubtedly by the tradition that Betts and Price fostered.

One of the new immigrant talents is John Jeremiah Sullivan, a Wilmington resident since 2004. His “Pulphead: Essays,” like Hal Crowther’s work, demands reflection and sometimes leads to self-conviction. But the essays also entertain and educate by turning Sullivan’s life’s experiences into compelling literature.

“Pulphead” gained national critical attention in 2011:  A “New York Times” notable book; an “Entertainment Weekly” top 10 nonfiction book; a “Time” top 10 nonfiction book; one of “Library Journal’s” best books.

In the article naming “Pulphead” one of the “Boston Globe’s” best nonfiction books of 2011, Michael Washburn wrote that the book is “devastatingly, sublimely good …. Sullivan revitalizes fringe events, mis-appreciated moments, and forgotten figures, from Christian rock festivals and Michael Jackson’s first performance of ‘Billie Jean’ to spectral, nearly forgotten blues singers, in idiosyncratic, warm-hearted, ribald, and slantwise essays….close to replacing the Great American Novel with the Great American Essay.”

Accompanying Amazon’s selection of “Pulphead” as one of the best books of the month in November 2011, Neal Thompson wrote, “What a fresh and daring voice. John Jeremiah Sullivan is a dynamic and gutsy writer, a cross between Flannery O’Connor and a decaffeinated Tom Wolfe, with just the right dash of Hunter S. Thompson. In fourteen essays ranging from an Axl Rose profile to an RV trek to a Christian rock festival to the touching story of his brother’s near-death electrocution, Sullivan writes funny, beautiful, and very real sentences. The sum of these stories portrays a real America, including the vast land between the coasts. Staying just this side of cynical, Sullivan displays respect for his subjects, no matter how freakish they may seem….”

“Pulphead’s” opening essay records Sullivan’s attendance at a Christian rock festival. As a skeptical journalist, Sullivan intends to probe the Christian rock music genre. But surrounded by a small group of hard-core evangelical Christian good old boys, Sullivan remembers and reflects upon his own “Jesus phase,” all the while delivering snide slams at the mediocrity of the music at the festival. It turned out to be rock music on a Christian leash, a formula that led neither to good music nor good religion.

North Carolina movie and TV fans will identify with the book’s final essay. It describes Sullivan’s family’s experience renting their home in Wilmington for the production of the TV series “One Tree Hill.”

In between are 12 other provocative pieces, each of which proves the talents of this new voice, whom Doris Betts and Reynolds Price would be proud to welcome into North Carolina’s literary pantheon.

Hillsborough author’s book is 'superior' to 'The Help'

“…‘The Dry Grass of August’ is a superior book to ‘The Help,’ even if it doesn’t sell three million copies.”

So writes Christina Bucher in the North Carolina Literary Review about “The Dry Grass of August.” Hillsborough’s Anna Jean Mayhew takes us all the way back to the racially-segregated Charlotte of 1954 and a poignant story of a young girl in a family under stress, being pulled apart by forces the girl does not understand. It is a story, in Lee Smith’s words, that is “written with unusual charm, wonderful dialogue, and a deeply felt sense of time and place.”

More about that story later, but the story of Mayhew’s writing life is also worth telling. She was well past her seventieth birthday when “Dry Grass,” her first novel was published.  The book was almost 20 years in the writing. A supportive writing group read Mayhew’s drafts and redrafts, giving her the encouragement and support to keep going.

“Dry Grass” was a surprise best-seller and continues to benefit from favorable critical attention and word of mouth recommendations. It won for Mayhew the prestigious Sir Walter Raleigh Award, established in 1952 and given by the Historical Book Club of North Carolina each year to the North Carolina writer who published the work of fiction judged the best.

In making the award, Nan Kester, president of the book club, explained how Mayhew’s life experience conditioned her for literary success, saying that her “past career experiences equipped her with skills that prepared her for writing, her fourth career. She was a court reporter which gave her invaluable insights into speech patterns and dialect, bringing truth to the dialogue in her fiction, opera management which taught her the importance of plot and flair for the dramatic production, editor of a major medical journal gave her the research skills necessary to validate the historical facts in her fiction set in the 1950’s and ’60s.”

The novel’s story begins in the Myers Park neighborhood where Mayhew grew up. The Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision putting an end to legal segregation in public schools has stirred up a hornets’ nest of racist reactions throughout the white community.

Meanwhile 13-year-old Jubie Watts is deeply attached to Mary Luther, Jubie’s family’s African American servant. Jubie bristles at the indignities that Mary Luther suffers, ill-treatment from Jubie’s parents and guests, always riding in the back seat of the car, and not being allowed to eat or sleep in the same facilities as the family on trips. Meanwhile Jubie’s dad is active in a White Business organization that uses its employment power to take jobs from blacks who try to vote or otherwise challenge the white dominant system.

Jubie adores Mary Luther and that affection is returned as loving discipline and support that Jubie craves. With very little positive attention from her troubled mother and father, Jubie needs all the help she can get.

With her look back at a racial and cultural society in transition, Mayhew also delivers a coming of age novel that will touch readers’ hearts. Then she serves up a tragic moment that will give those same hearts a hurt that will be long remembered.

Continuing her comparison with “The Help,” reviewer Bucher says that “The Dry Grass of August” and Minrose Guin’s “stunning debut novel,” “The Queen of Palmyra,” “offer a more nuanced view of this complicated, troublesome time in the not-so-distant past, when it was debatable the ‘dreams of the Good’ would—or could—prevail over the ‘killers of the dream.’”

One more year of believing

What does my brief appearance last month on stage in “The Murphey School Radio Show” have to do with Christmas memories? It is a little bit of a long story, starting with the confession that for a long time I wanted to be a ventriloquist like Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy.

Okay, “The Murphey School Radio Show” is not the “Grand Ole Opry” or Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion.” But many of the hundreds of people who saw the show in person or the countless others who heard the broadcast would say it was just as good.

I got to do a skit with popular author Lee Smith. She played the host on a program called “Bookwitch,” and I was her guest. The made-up title of my book was “Dummies for Dummies.” My ventriloquist’s dummy (or puppet) and I had small speaking parts.

It was a dream that began more than 60 years ago, about the time I had begun to figure out the role of Santa Claus.

My parents knew that I wanted Santa to bring me two things–a new basketball and a small ventriloquist’s dummy.

They told me that Santa couldn’t be expected to bring me two “big” presents and that I would have to choose which one I wanted the most.

Of course, I wanted both.

I needed the new basketball. The older kids wouldn’t always let me play with them. But if they wanted to play with my new ball, they would have to let me in the game.

As for the ventriloquist’s dummy, I was sure I could use it to amaze and entertain–and get the attention that I craved.

One day in our attic I found a square package with a brand new basketball–just like the one I wanted Santa to bring me.

What was “Santa’s” basketball doing in our attic?

I was pretty sure I knew the answer, but I didn’t like it. My friends and I had been talking about the question of whether or not Santa was real.

I had been a believer. But that basketball was, I knew, not really going to come from Santa.

Disturbed but also enlightened by this discovery, knowing that I was going to get the basketball from “Santa,” I told my parents that I wanted Santa to bring me the ventriloquist’s dummy.

At the very moment I was painfully giving up my belief in Santa Claus, I was still ready to exploit the system.

The story is not over. Christmas morning I came down the stairs looking for my dummy and my new basketball. Sure enough, there was the ventriloquist’s dummy beside the fireplace. But there was no basketball.

No basketball. “I thought I was getting a basketball,” I said to my parents.

“But don’t you remember. You said you wanted Santa to bring you the ventriloquist’s dummy, and that is just what he did.”
“Yes,” I thought, “but . . . but . . . but . . . I saw the basketball.”

It was all a puzzle. All so confusing. I liked the ventriloquist’s dummy, but I sure wanted the basketball, too. And I had seen it in the attic.

Later that morning, when we were opening the family presents, my dad reached under the tree and handed me a wrapped-up, square package. “From Mom and Dad,” the card said. When I opened it–well, you know what was inside.

I had my basketball–from my parents.

“Of course,” I thought. “That is why it had been in our attic.”

My basketball from Mom and Dad and my ventriloquist’s dummy from . . . from Santa. Yes, from Santa. Who else?

And I had another gift. It was, I think, the best gift of all.

One more year of believing.

North Carolina books for summer reading

Summer is here.

Are there some North Carolina books in your summer reading book bag?
If not, here are some possibilities from authors who will be featured on upcoming programs on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch.
Rachel, the blue-eyed child of a black American GI and a Danish mother, is the central character in an award-winning novel, “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky” by Heidi Durrow. Durrow herself is the child of a Danish mother and an African-American father, whose military assignments brought him to North Carolina. The author’s real struggle to find her identity provided the background for the similar fictional struggle that Rachel faced. But the novel is a darker story, a more compelling one, of a child whose mother loved her so much she wanted her child to die with her. (Durrow will be my Bookwatch guest at 9:30 p.m. on Friday, June 17, and 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, June 19.)
Suzanne Hobbs, who teaches at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, is a prominent public health professional and author of several books in the “for Dummies” series, including “Living Dairy-Free for Dummies.” Why would a distinguished professor want to write a book for dummies? She explains that the “dummies” formula is a big help for an author who wants to write clearly and simply. Lots of readers, most of whom are not dummies, appreciate the approach. And the books far outsell most of the academic books that Hobbs’s university colleagues write. (June 24,26)
Burnsville’s Abigail DeWitt’s new novel, “Dogs,” is not about dogs. It is the story of a judge’s daughter who grows up into trouble and nevertheless is admitted to Harvard, where those troubles compound. How she makes for a happier life in North Carolina as she grows older keeps the story from being overwhelmingly dark. Here is what Lee Smith says about the book: “Dark, sexy, and profoundly original—a Texas-hot family saga unlike any other. A brilliant and thought-provoking novel from the extravagantly talented Abigail DeWitt.” (July 1,3)
From “Birth of a Nation” in 1915 to Hattie McDaniel in “Gone with the Wind,” to Ethel Waters in “Member of the Wedding” in 1952, African-American actresses made their way into American movies in the first half of the last century.  In her new book, “African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility, 1900–1960,” UNC-Chapel Hill professor Charlene Regester tells the real stories of these women who became stars in a time of segregation and oppression. (July 8,10)
John Hart’s recent novel “The Lost Child” won for him a second Edgar Award for the best mystery novel of the year. He says his latest, “Iron House,” is even better. It is a page-turner, with much of the action set on a large estate near Chapel Hill owned by a wealthy U.S. Senator. (July 15,17)
A new author, Anna Jean Mayhew, and a new novel, “The Dry Grass of August”, take us all the way back to the racially-segregated Charlotte of 1954 and the poignant story of a young girl in a family under stress, being pulled apart by forces the girl does not understand. It is a story, in Lee Smith’s words, that is “written with unusual charm, wonderful dialogue, and a deeply felt sense of time and place.” (July 22,24)
Seventy-five years ago, down in Pinehurst, a young heiress married a charming but dead broke socialite. A few weeks later she dies under suspicious circumstances. Many people think the husband did it. Years later Steve Bouser, editor of the Southern Pines Pilot, tracked down the details. He tells the story of what he found in “Death of a Pinehurst Princess: The 1935 Elva Statler Davidson Mystery.” (July 29,31)

What’s on YOUR summer reading list?

North Carolina books for spring reading

What should I be reading this spring?

Some of you know that I get this question from my friends each year when the weather starts to warm up. And, you remember, I often respond with a list of a variety of books, each of which has a North Carolina connection and, often, just happen to be scheduled on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch’s upcoming programs.

First up is former poet laureate of North Carolina, essayist, critic, teacher mentor of many of North Carolina’s outstanding writers, recent recipient of the John Tyler Caldwell Award for the Humanities, and acknowledged by many to be the dean of the North Carolina literary community, Fred Chappell. Every student of North Carolina writing should become familiar with Chappell’s work. His recent book of short fiction, “Ancestors and Others: New and Selected Stories,” showcases his storytelling talents by taking his readers all over the world and then back to people we know in North Carolina. He will talk about the book and his writing career on North Carolina Bookwatch on Friday, May 6, at 9:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 8, at 5 p.m.

Kathy Pories, senior editor at Algonquin Books, is the series editor of “New Stories from the South,” an annual collection of the best short fiction in our region. Reading this collection of authors like Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle is a great way to sample the best of today’s important southern fiction writers. On Bookwatch, Pories answers questions like “What sets southern literary writers apart from other American writers?” and “What makes a short story different from a short novel?” (May 13, 15)

Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton. You probably remember reading about their nightmare stories. She is brutally raped and must live with that trauma for the rest of her life. Then, based on her testimony, Cotton, though innocent, is convicted and spends more than 10 years in prison until DNA evidence proves his innocence. Their poignant story is the subject of the book they wrote together, “Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption.” (May 20, 22)

With the legislature debating whether or not to pass a law making NASCAR North Carolina’s official sport, it is a good time to read Daniel Pierce’s “Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay, and Big Bill France.” Some North Carolina basketball and baseball fans might disagree, but there can be no argument that for many of us, stock car racing, the NASCAR variety, is their passion. They can tell you how North Carolina moonshiners driving their fast car away from the revenuers got things started. The real story, as told by Pierce, is even more interesting. (May 27,29)

In its review of Wells Tower’s collection of short stories, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” The New York Times reviewer wrote, “This arresting debut collection of stories decisively establishes Mr. Tower as a writer of uncommon talent.” Tower is one of the young North Carolina writers that people all over the country are watching. (June 3, 5)

Raleigh author Scott Huler is the 2011 Piedmont Laureate. Recently, he asked his readers to think about how we are surrounded by electric, telephone, and cable wires, water and sewer lines, utility poles, cell phone towers, roads, and other infrastructures that connect us. Huler followed all these links from his house to their source or final destination. He shares those journeys in his book, “On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems that Make our World Work” and on North Carolina Bookwatch (June 10, 12)

I hope you will save this column and use it as a guide for reading and television viewing in the next few weeks.

Now, what will YOU be reading this Spring?

Legislative trading and sausage making

“If someone ties a love note to a nuclear bomb, do you take ‘em both?”

That was State Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, a Democrat, complaining about the legislature’s Republican majority tying a controversial budget cut provision to a popular proposed extension of unemployment benefits.

Of course, as Sen. Nesbitt knows, this kind of posturing goes on all the time in the General Assembly and in the Congress. The best way to get an unpopular piece of legislation passed and signed by the president or a governor is to tie it tightly to a very popular bill.

When I first started my former job representing the university system in the legislative halls, I had a lot to learn. (And to be fair, I still had a lot to learn even after I had spent years on the job.)
One of the hardest things for me to understand is the marketplace character of the legislature. What do I mean? Simply this: It is where a lot of trading goes on. When a legislator or a lobbyist wants to get something done, he or she quickly finds out that it will not automatically happen just because it is a good idea.
It usually takes some trading.
Here is an example. When the legislature gives inflationary increases to the pensions of state workers, it regularly makes similar adjustments for the faculty members who participate in a nationwide academic retirement plan. The university system views this adjustment as something that should be automatic.

But, towards the end of one session, when we approached the chair of the committee responsible for the retirement provisions of the budget, he let us know in no uncertain terms that the adjustment would not be automatic.

“We’ll see about that,” he said as he quickly shifted his eyes away from us to meet those of another supplicant.

I panicked, but my mentor, the late Jay Robinson, was calm. “Don’t worry about it too much,” he said. “Old Joe just needs something to trade. He will hold it back so that if he needs something from a university partisan, he can trade his approval of the pension provision to get what he wants.”

It didn’t seem right. “But,” explained Robinson, “that is the kind of trade every legislator wants—trading something that is probably going to happen anyway, in exchange for something he really wants but would not have happened if he hadn’t held something back he could give up.”

Does it seem complicated and unfair?

It did to me, too. But once I learned how the system worked, I got a lot more done than when I was just arguing the merits of the case.

However, there is a risk to this tactic. When the public becomes convinced that some person or some group is, in Sen. Nesbitt’s words, “tying an atom bomb” to something the government ought to be doing without condition, that person or group can be in trouble. They can get tagged with putting politics ahead of the public interest.

I learned another lesson about legislative trading in 2007 when I was interim director of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. Although the fund was popular with most legislators, the House of Representatives reduced the fund’s appropriation in its preliminary budget. When I asked why, the House budget leaders told me privately, “The fund will get its appropriation in the end, but Sen. Basnight really loves that program, and we need something to trade when we negotiate a final budget with him.”

If it were not so important, watching our legislators could be fun.

Like watching all the insider signals at a baseball game–or watching sausage being made.

Those are my thoughts. What are yours? Comment below!

D.G. Martin hosts UNC-TV’s “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at
This week’s (Sunday, May 1) guest is Lee Smith, author of “Mrs. Darcy & The Blue-eyed Stranger.”