RALEIGH — I disagreed with the late Bill Friday on nearly every public policy issue you can imagine. But over two decades of regular phone conversations and occasional meetings, Mr. Friday and I never had a disagreeable moment.
I respected him as an accomplished leader of the University of North Carolina system, a skilled political operator, and a genuinely kind man. I think he, in turn, was genuinely curious about my political ideas – how and why I came to adopt them, and why other North Carolinians of my generation shared them. In a way, I was a specimen under a microscope. But I didn’t mind. And, in truth, so was he.
We discussed our differences, civilly. We actually spent more time talking about our shared concerns: the unwelcome creation of a state-run lottery, the conflict between academic rigor and big-time college sports, and growing corruption in government.
In the days since Mr. Friday’s untimely passing, events in the news have prompted me to replay some of those conversations in my mind.
Catching up on my teetering stack of must-reads, for example, I ran across a lengthy Bloomberg Businessweek story about the Duke-Progress merger and Duke CEO Jim Rogers’ protestations that he hadn’t misled company employees, regulators, or the general public about who would lead the combined company. “Storytelling,” Rogers explained, is a big part of the job of running Duke. “Life is about making stuff up as you go,” he said. “You’re constantly taking a story line, changing the narrative, looking at it from all different perspectives.”
I caught up on other scandal reading, too. The News & Observer reported on additional information suggesting that special treatment of athletes at UNC-Chapel Hill extended far beyond one professor or department.
In the same edition, the N&O let loose another bombshell: that two current members of the Wake County Board of Education, Deborah Goldman and Chris Malone, had engaged in personal behavior more akin to a badly written soap opera than a position of public trust. Back in 2010, Goldman had reported a burglary and theft of $130,000 in jewelry, coins, and cash to the police and indicated Malone as a suspect, alleging that he had essentially been stalking her for months. Malone, in turn, claimed that the two had a romantic fling that went bad. The police ended the investigation without charging anyone, and Goldman curiously never filed an insurance claim for the stolen goods.
Despite these events, both Goldman and Malone chose to run for higher office in 2012 – Goldman for state auditor and Malone for the state house of representatives. Both won their respective Republican primaries without their bizarre relationship becoming common knowledge. Perhaps they thought it wouldn’t come out in the general election campaign, or that they could explain it away.
Then I read and watched some news stories on North Carolina politics. I saw Republican Pat McCrory, probably the state’s next governor, remind voters of the lengthy parade of Democratic officeholders – former Gov. Mike Easley, former House Speaker Jim Black, former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, former aides to Gov. Bev Perdue, and many others – who had broken the law or acted unethically.
And I saw defenders of Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, McCrory’s opponent, respond by pointing to misdeeds by prominent Republicans such as former GOP chairman Sam Currin, who went to prison for money laundering, and the former chief of staff to House Speaker Thom Tillis, Charles Thomas, who violated marriage vows and the public trust by having an affair with a lobbyist.
Corruption knows no partisan or ideological boundaries. All human beings are imperfect creatures subject to temptation. I don’t expect people to be “practically perfect in every way,” as Mary Poppins was a whimsy, not a real person. But I do expect those who would lead governments, businesses, or educational institutions not to lie, cheat, steal, or sleep around to their heart’s content. Don’t you?
North Carolina has no shortage of challenges. I’ve come to believe that the most serious one is a leadership crisis. Too few leaders today set a good example, not just in ethical conduct but in civility and thoughtfulness. Former Republican Gov. Jim Martin, currently leading an investigation into the UNC athletics mess, was one such leader. Bill Friday, a liberal Democrat, was another.
Memo to the next generation of leaders: No need to be creative here. Just copy them.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and a member of the inaugural class of the William C. Friday Fellowship.