Remembering the real Jesse Helms

by Jeff Fleischer

(BuzzFlash, July 10, 2008)


There’s a trend in politics to avoid speaking ill of the recently dead. So, in the wake of former Sen. Jesse Helms’ July 4 death, lots of prominent figures cast his long career of bigotry and obstruction in terms better than a man with Helms’ track record deserves.

President Bush called him “a kind, decent and humble man.” Billy Graham went with “a man of consistent conviction to conservative ideals and courage to faithfully serve God and country.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell deemed him “a leading voice and courageous champion for the many causes he believed in.”

The causes he believed in, of course, are the problem with his legacy. This was a man longtime columnist David Broder once described as “the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in the country.” (He apparently forgot about Pat Buchanan). Perhaps the best eulogy for the North Carolina anachronism came during his final Senate term, courtesy of the late, great Molly Ivins. “Helms has been anti-black, anti-gay, anti-woman and anti-progress,” she wrote in 2001. “He was perfectly willing to use his power for partisan nastiness and for petty provincial politics… A fine example of the 16th Century thinker.”

Now is not the time to forget who Jesse Helms really was. It’s one thing to feel badly about his family’s loss, but it’s equally important to remember the damage people such as Helms caused to this country.

Besides, Helms was never one to have much sympathy for the dead. When told of death squads massacring civilians on orders from Roberto D’Aubuisson — one of the many abhorrent dictators he befriended — Helms famously brushed the crimes away with, “All I know is that D’Aubuisson is a free-enterprise man and deeply religious.”

Helms was so blinded by his hatred of communism that he supported some of this hemisphere’s most vicious fascists, a leap in logic Bob Dylan once brilliantly lampooned as fighting a cold by taking a shot of malaria. Helms was a big fan of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, whose regime “disappeared” nearly 2,300 people — some still unaccounted for — and tortured roughly ten times that many. Raoul Cedras in Haiti, the Contras in Nicaragua, D’Aubuisson in El Salvador — as long as they professed opposition to Marxism, Helms never cared how much innocent blood stained their hands.

The senator who holds his former seat, Elizabeth Dole, said last weekend that, “Jesse was indeed a watchdog for North Carolina and for the nation.” That metaphor might have been a bit too apt. Like some literal watchdogs in the South of his heyday, Helms spent quite a bit of his time viciously attacking black people who merely dared to demand basic civil rights.

He sicced himself on black Africans abroad, as he tried ending sanctions against the segregationist regime in what was then Rhodesia and was such an ardent supporter of apartheid in South Africa that he pointedly refused to attend an address to Congress by Nelson Mandela.

He was even more rabid toward African Americans at home.

He considered Martin Luther King a Marxist, said King’s principles were “not compatible with the concepts of this country,” and led an unsuccessful 1983 filibuster against a federal holiday honoring the civil-rights leader (a holiday even supported by former segregationists such as Strom Thurmond). In his memoirs, Helms bristled at accusations that his filibuster came from racism. His track record, though, is hardly ambiguous.

He famously harassed then-Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, in one case telling a colleague to watch him make her cry and then literally whistling “Dixie” in an elevator in an attempt to do so. This wasn’t revenge for Moseley-Braun doing anything to him, other than offending his backward sensibilities by being the first black woman in “his” Senate. He was known to call all African Americans “Fred” as a derogatory blanket term. He spent most of the 1960s railing against the civil-rights movement as a broadcaster and vocally opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Act. His commentaries included such nuggets as, “The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that’s thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic and interfere with other men’s rights.” These were not isolated incidents and, unlike other segregationists of his era, Helms never apologized or matured in his views. It’s no coincidence that when fellow agent of intolerance Jerry Falwell started his own college, he named its school of government after Helms.

Several obituaries noted Helms’ tendency to run “negative ads” against his opponents, but that undermines what he did. An ad criticizing an opponent’s voting record or economic plan can be negative but fair; what Helms ran were none-too-subtle exercises in race baiting.

While working for Senate candidate Willis Smith in 1950, Helms worked on ads with text such as, “White people, wake up before it is too late. Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and your daughters,” and another in which he doctored a photo to show the wife of Smith’s opponent dancing with a black man. As a candidate himself, Helms ran ads that superimposed black leaders next to an opponent, bragged about his filibuster against the King holiday, or played on fears of workers losing their jobs to “less-qualified” minorities. His campaign once had to settle with the Justice Department after some 125,000 black voters in North Carolina received postcards that threatened them with imprisonment if they tried to vote. It was a false threat, but one that no doubt kept some from voting — a potentially crucial outcome considering Helms never received as much as 55 percent of the vote in his career. Short of giving a speech in blackface, it would have been hard for Helms to top his own track record.

There was a lot more to dislike about Helms. The way he illegally subsidized his own campaigns, getting hit with large FEC fines after the fact. His rampant homophobia. His claiming to stick up for the “little guy” while making substantial profits on shoddy rental properties he ran in his home state. His attempts to censor and craft a takeover of CBS News for alleged bias, a remarkable glass-house charge given the nature of his broadcasting experience. His claims to support “small government” while voting to waste billions of taxpayer money on needless weapons systems and scuttle arms-reduction treaties.

But it’s his racism that stands out most of all. When Helms announced his retirement in 2001, Broder chastised the press for playing down that aspect in its coverage. “What is unique about Helms — and from my viewpoint, unforgivable,” he wrote then, “is his willingness to pick at the scab of the great wound of American history, the legacy of slavery and segregation, and to inflame racial resentment against African Americans.” That’s the legacy of Jesse Helms.

It would have been a nice bit of poetic justice if Helms had lived long enough to see an African-American president take the oath of office. Instead, if history is made next January, he’ll merely have to settle for rolling over in his grave.

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