One on One – Galifianakis: Nick or Zach?

By D.G. Martin

D.G. MartinChapel Hill, NC – Did you ever feel so let down after an election?

Many North Carolina Democrats have been asking each other this question every day since they learned the results of the latest presidential election.

Some old timers remember other times when they felt like they had been hit in the stomach by disappointing election results. There are still people around who remember the way they felt after the primary election in 1950 when the legendary progressive, former university and incumbent U.S. Senator Frank Graham lost his bid to keep his office. Others will tell you the empty feeling they felt when Jim Hunt lost the 1984 U.S. senate election to Jesse Helms.

Then, there are folks who will say that the very worst they ever felt was in 1972 when Democrats lost the presidency, the governor’s mansion, and a U.S. Senate seat to the Republicans.  They remember that Helms, who won that Senate Seat and kept it for 30 years, transformed North Carolina politics, and converted many Democrats to the other party.

Many, however, may not remember that Helms’s victory also interrupted the upward trajectory of one of North Carolina’s most promising and most interesting political figures, someone whose intelligence and political skills, combined with his love of life and a compelling family background, might have made him a candidate for the presidency and made his hard-to-spell family name as familiar as Obama.

Ironically that name has been made famous, not by the 1972 losing Senate candidate, but by his nephew, popular actor Zach Galifianakis.

The nephew may be better known today, but his uncle Nick Galifianakis’s life and political career is an important one for those who want to understand our state’s history and political background. A new book, “Pick Nick: The Political Odyssey of Nick Galifianakis from Immigrant Son to Congressman,” tells that story. Author John E. Semonche is a retired professor of constitutional history at UNC-Chapel Hill and a longtime friend of the book‘s subject.

Semonche says Galifianakis’s importance in North Carolina politics goes far beyond his contest against Helms. The book follows Galifianakis’s growing up years and early political successes. It shows how he overcame the disadvantages of his immigrant background and his strange sounding name. It was a time when North Carolinians were even more suspicious of “those other people” than they are today.

Nevertheless Galifianakis was often able to turn such disadvantages into positives. For instance, instead of a single campaign button featuring his name, he used two, one with GALIFI and the other with ANAKIS. Today, those buttons are treasures for collectors of campaign memorabilia.

Nick Galifianakis was born in Durham in 1928 to Greek immigrant parents. His father ran Durham’s Lincoln Café. The family spoke Greek at home so that Nick had trouble adjusting to school. But, not for long. Successful at Durham High in academics, he was student body president.  After undergraduate and law school at Duke and service as a Marine Corps officer, he began practicing law in Durham. In 1960, he won election to the North Carolina House of Representatives and served three terms.

In the summer of 1965, when I was a state government intern, I watched from the balcony as a smiling Rep. Galifianakis distributed to fellow members his mother’s Greek sugar pastries. On that day, especially, he was very popular with his colleagues.

Galifianakis leveraged his popularity to win three elections to the U.S. House and to defeat incumbent and more conservative Sen. Everett Jordan in the 1972 Democratic primary.

But for all his charm and political skills he could not withstand the 1972 Republican sweep and Helms’s “He’s One of Us” campaign that cast Galifianakis as an outsider.

If things had gone the other way, Zach’s tagline might be “nephew of former U.S. President Nick Galifianakis.”


D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. This Thursday’s (January 4) guest is Kathy Reichs, author of “Speaking In Bones.” Next week’s (January 8, 12) guest is Vivian Howard, author of “Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South.” Preview the upcoming program on UNC-TV North Carolina digital channel  (Time Warner #1276) on Fridays at 8 p.m.

To view prior programs:

For upcoming programs:

Thursday 5pm January 5 Kathy Reichs, author of “Speaking In Bones” 

Sunday noon January 8 and Thursday 5pm January 12 Vivian Howard, author of “Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South” 

Sunday noon January 15 and Thursday 5pm January 19 Steve Sherrill, author of “The Minotaur Takes His Own Sweet Time” 

Sunday noon January 22 and Thursday 5pm January 26 Art Chansky, author of “Game Changers: Dean Smith, Charlie Scott, and the Era That Transformed a Southern College Town” 

Sunday noon January 29 and Thursday 5pm January Nina DeGramont author of “The Last September”