In his first full-time job at his grandfather's Raleigh TV station, Jim Goodmon made sure Jesse Helms' ideas got aired. That was 1968. Goodmon, then 25, was WRAL's operations manager. Helms, in addition to being executive vice president of the parent company, was its news director and political commentator. Each morning, his granddad--A.J. Fletcher, who started Capitol Broadcasting Co. in 1937 and shared Helms' ultra-conservative politics--signed off on that day's Viewpoint, which Goodmon recorded for the evening newscast. In his two-minute editorials, Helms castigated causes he considered threats to bedrock American values, decrying, for instance, communists and "moral degenerates" in the civil rights movement. The rightwing rhetoric infuriated liberals but, four years later, helped send Helms to Washington for the first of Jus five terms as a U.S. senator.
"It's not anybody's damn business what I think about what Jesse said," Goodmon says. "I agreed with everything my grandfather wanted to do--because I worked for him." On this autumn afternoon, he's trying hard not to say what he really thinks. As the sun lights pink blooms ablaze in the azalea garden his grandfather planted, he twists a wood coffee stirrer in his left hand. Dressed business casual, with cuff links shaped like bulls (as in Durham Bulls, his minor-league baseball team), he stretches his trim, 6-foot-2 frame in a metal patio chair shaded by a big oak. As he does most afternoons, he had cut through the basement of WRAL, past the garbage dumpsters, to buy an iced soy latte from the Cup A Joe cafe next door to the station and adjoining company headquarters. "Jesse Helms was a friend of mine. Here he goes to the Senate, and I'm running the station. In 30 years, he didn't complain to me about coverage on WRAL. He wouldn't do that. I respect him for that. There couldn't have been anybody any nicer than Jesse Helms." After a pause, he adds, "I certainly didn't agree with everything he had to say." Finally, he says, "It is very true that I wouldn't have run those editorials."
A Republican most his life, Goodmon, 71, wound up a liberal, a label he's not entirely comfortable with--"I hate those damn names"--and considers something of an occupational hazard. "If you are involved in local broadcasting, you see everything and you understand it. There are so many people who see things in black and white, and they are in the middle. Life is not that simple." For decades, he kept a low profile as a businessman while supporting causes some of his acquaintances considered suspect, such as helping drug addicts and supporting the NAACP. He refrained from talking publicly about politics. Then, about five years ago, his attitude changed with the political landscape. The ascendancy of conservative Republicans in the General Assembly, he says, led to "dismantling the work of the past 30 to 35 years" in public education and race relations. In the early 1990s, he had gotten a firsthand look at deficiencies in North Carolina's public schools as a leader of Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt's push for Smart Start. As a Republican CEO, he represented support from the business community, helping win legislative funding for an early-childhood education program that became a national model. "It was the first time that I had some sense of him playing a role outside of being a television executive," says Ferrel Guillory, who as political writer for The News & Observer chronicled the national ascent of Helms in the 1970s. Now director of the Program on Public Life at UNC Chapel Hill's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, he has worked with Goodmon on projects in the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh. "Over time, he's gotten increasingly interested in social and political issues."