The other night Gary and I spoke at Quail Ridge Books about Hillbilly Elegy and as the two of us argued about what diseases shuttered Ohio steel mills, addicted mothers to opioids, split our country into armed camps and left white working-class voters supporting Trump a lady in the back of the room stood up and asked, When did you two become friends?
I met Gary back in 1984 when he, Phil Carlton, Tom Ellis and I sat down around a conference table in a law firm to negotiate the Helms-Hunt debates. You could have cut the chill in that room with a knife. There was no trust at all in that room.
At the second (or, maybe, third) meeting an odd fact landed on the table: The two sides wanted exactly the same kind of a debate – a debate where Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt asked each other questions. But that wasn’t what the Broadcaster’s Association wanted: They wanted their anchormen on stage in the limelight – alongside Helms and Hunt – and to do that they had to be the ones asking the questions.
The negotiations stalled then in the middle of the next meeting Mr. Ellis turned to the broadcasters and asked, Would you all mind leaving us alone for a few minutes?
They left, Mr. Ellis looked across the table at Phil Carlton and Gary and, about five minutes later, we’d worked out the debates. Oddly, as it turned out, the one person who would dislike the debate format even more than the broadcasters was Jesse. Jim Hunt won three of the four debates. But that’s another story.
I didn’t lay eyes on Gary again for eight years – until 1992 – when I was sitting in the conference room in another law firm waiting to negotiate a debate between Lauch Faircloth and Senator Terry Sanford. When Gary walked through the door, I looked up surprised: I knew he was helping Governor Hunt but didn’t know he was also helping Terry Sanford.
Gary glanced down the room at the Broadcasters Association’s attorney, then leaned across the table – toward me – held out his hand and said: “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”
That one sentence bridged the divide.