Robert Rice Reynolds (1884-1963), popularly known as “Buncombe Bob,” represented North Carolina in the U.S. Senate from 1932 until 1944. The flamboyant Reynolds began his political career as a staunch New Dealer before turning to isolationism and extreme nationalism.
Reynolds was born June 18, 1884, in Asheville, North Carolina, the son of William T. and Mamie Spears Reynolds. As a teenager, Reynolds ran away from home and worked as a dishwasher and cabin boy in Florida. After returning home he enrolled at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. There, he played varsity football and edited the sports section of the Daily Tar Heel. Reynolds had an unimpressive academic career and left UNC without receiving a degree.
In 1909 Reynolds ran as the Democratic candidate for Asheville district solicitor. To emphasize his down-home roots, he traveled around the district on a one-eyed horse and passed out peppermint candy from his saddlebags. Though Asheville was Republican territory, Reynolds won an upset victory. It was his last success for a long time. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s he campaigned fruitlessly for the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the North Carolina Lieutenant Governorship.
Reynolds finally succeeded in 1932. He entered the Democratic primary against Senator Cameron Morrison, who had been appointed to the Senate in 1930 to succeed Lee S. Overman. Reynolds began the campaign as a fringe candidate, but he made headway by appealing to voters hit hard by the Great Depression. He exaggerated his poverty by traveling the state in a ramshackle Ford and asking for gas money at campaign rallies. Reynolds also blasted Morrison as “the Million Dollar Man” who preferred caviar to old-fashioned chicken eggs.
But his campaign was not all personal attacks. Reynolds’s opposition to Prohibition resonated with the public. Though North Carolina had long been a “dry” state, opposed to the sale of alcohol, Reynolds realized that most people had grown weary of Prohibition. He also favored a relatively Liberal economic program; he called for a balanced budget, higher taxes on tobacco and textile companies, and federal protection for bank deposits. With his colorful campaign and economic populism, Reynolds won a surprisingly easy victory over Morrison (65.4% of the vote). On Election Day he handily dispatched his Republican opponent.
As a senator, Reynolds stood out from his fellow southerners in his support for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Most southern senators, including North Carolina’s Josiah Bailey, opposed the New Deal as an unacceptable expansion of government power. By contrast, Reynolds was a proponent of many New Deal policies. He endorsed liberal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. He even stood by FDR when the president attempted to “pack” the Supreme Court with friendly justices.
Yet Reynolds never presented himself as a Liberal. First and foremost, he was concerned with shoring up his political base in North Carolina. As Reynolds himself put it, “When the people of North Carolina are for something 75 percent, boy I’m for it 1000 percent.” His support for the WPA and CCC, for instance, was motivated less by ideology and more by the fact that those organizations were helping to build North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway.
Nor was Reynolds a reliable friend of FDR. He might have favored the New Deal, but he resisted the president’s interventionist foreign policy. This isolationism grew more pronounced during his second term. In 1938, Reynolds visited Europe and, on returning home, declared that Hitler and Mussolini “are doing what is best for their people.” When Germany annexed Czechoslovakia in 1938, Reynolds was one of the few Americans to defend Hitler. And when FDR proposed the Lend-Lease Act, which allowed the U.S. to lend destroyers to the embattled United Kingdom, Reynolds was the only southern senator to vote against it.
The election of 1938 marked a turning point in Reynolds’s career. That year, he faced a primary challenge from Congressman Frank Hancock, an ardent New Dealer. Reynolds crushed Hancock, but he was infuriated when FDR appointed Hancock to the Federal Home Loan Board. Reynolds considered this a personal insult. He then turned against New Deal labor legislation and relief programs. In particular, he alleged that the labor unions were dominated by communists.
Foreign immigration particularly interested Reynolds. During his first term he had co-authored the Reynolds-Starnes Bill, which, if passed, would have cut immigration by ninety percent. In 1939 he created the Vindicators Association, an ultra-nationalist group that sought to keep the United States out of war and to end all immigration for ten years. Neither blacks nor Jews were allowed to join the Vindicators. As a result, some critics, including prominent journalists Drew Pearson and Robert S. Allen, began to refer to Reynolds as the “Tar Heel Fuhrer.”
In 1941, Reynolds became chair of the Senate Military Affairs Committee after the death of Senator Morris Sheppard. As chair, he opposed the introduction of a peacetime draft. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor briefly shifted Reynolds from his isolationism, but he soon returned to his original stance. Shortly before the war’s end, he formed the American Nationalist Committee of Independent Voters. The National Committee opposed any attempt to “submerge the United States in internationalism.”
Reynolds had won an easy reelection in 1938, but by 1944 his political fortunes had taken a turn for the worse. North Carolinians had grown tired of his rigid isolationism and over-the-top persona. It was clear that, if he ran for re-election, he would lose to popular governor Clyde R. Hoey. Reynolds thus chose to end his senatorial career in 1944. Six years later, he made an abortive comeback against Liberal senator Frank Porter Graham. But Reynolds finished a distant third in the Democratic primary and never again attempted to run for office. He died on February 13, 1963.
Reynolds’s legacy remains controversial. Some regard him as a proto-fascist, a would-be American Hitler. Others consider him a radical populist along the lines of Huey P. Long of Louisiana. Still others dismiss him as a harmless buffoon. In Buncombe Bob, the authoritative biography on Reynolds, Julian Pleasants summed up the senator: “In short, he was a unique southern demagogue.”
Anthony J. Badger, North Carolina and the New Deal (Raleigh, 1981); Rob Christensen, The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics: The Personalities, Elections, and Events that Shaped Modern North Carolina (Chapel Hill, 2008); New York Times, June 12, 1944; Rorin Platt, “Senator Robert Rice Reynolds: An Atypical Tar Heel Politician” http://www.northcarolinahistory.org/commentary/108/entry (Accessed May 17, 2010); Julian M Pleasants, Buncombe Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Rice Reynolds (Chapel Hill, 2000); Milton Ready, The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina (Columbia, SC, 2005).