Reflections on Jesse Helms

Well, I didn't exactly plan to break my silence with a non-science post but a couple of you asked if I had any comments on the passing of Senator Helms. Frankly, I was already going into the US Independence Day weekend with a bit of melancholia, feeling very much like the Philadelphia Inquirer's Chris Satullo in his not-so-glorious-Fourth essay.

Then Jesse Helms died on the 4th and I had to hear about "the passing of a great patriot," and any number of hypocritical invocations of God ("America has lost a great friend, but Heaven has gained another of the great cloud of witnesses. We stand on the shoulders of a great man. Would to God, that we are found as faithful") that I have not witnessed since the passing of Enron's Ken Lay almost exactly two years ago.

Let there be no mistake - Jesse Helms was hatred and intolerance personified. We needn't dirty up this blog with his 40+ years of racism and bigotry so I refer you to this compilation to get a flavor of America's great friend. I particularly enjoyed his reference to UNC, his state's flagship university, as "The University of Negroes and Communists."

One commenter over at Ed Brayton's place voiced the sentiment that North Carolinians deserved who they voted for. But in truth, Helms was only as popular in North Carolina as George Bush is in the United States. I've been working my way through Rob Christensen's excellent book, The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics, and learned in his entire chapter devoted to Helms:

. . .Helms won reelection four times. But with his confrontational and sharply conservative brand of politics, it was never easy. In retaining office, Helms won 55 percent, 52 percent, 53 percent, and 53 percent of the votes - figures far below most established Senate incumbents. Like many successful politicians, Helms was blessed with good timing. In his two most difficult campaigns, 1972 and 1984 he was helped by national Republican landslides. In 1978 he faced a Democrat who was virtually disowned by his party. And in his last two reelection campaigns he defeated a black candidate during a century in which only two African Americans were elected to the Senate, neither from the South.

And Helms wasn't just racist. Again, Christensen:

He fought relentlessly against any expansion of government, except the military. Throughout his career, he was an ardent foe of nearly every social program, from food stamps to child nutrition programs; opposed nearly every consumer program, including the creation of the Consumer Protection Agency; and voted against nearly every environmental bill.

But here is where I will give Helms credit as a visionary: in recognizing early the value of the then-new media to spread the fearmongering messages of his lot. After quitting college and working as a newspaper reporter and editor followed by giving radio interview during World War II as a navy recruiter, Helms was tapped by A.J. Fletcher, a Raleigh lawyer who bankrolled a small radio station in 1939 that grew to be one of the most popular in the state.

Helms served as Fletcher's news director in the 1940s but truly came into his own as an on-air television editorialist in 1960. With Helms' help in Washington via his contacts as a staffer for Senator Willis Smith, Fletcher had beaten out several larger competitors in 1957 to earn a FCC license for the state capital's first major television station, WRAL. Fletcher's expressed goal was to offset the influence of the state's major newspaper, "long regarded as one of the most liberal newspapers in the South despite its involvement in the white supremacy campaigns at the turn of the century." Fletcher hired Jesse to give a four-and-a-half minute editorial at the end of each 6 p.m. weeknight newscast with what Christensen describes as "an unvarnished libertarian conservatism." Helms' 2,800 Viewpoint commentaries aired over the next 11 years not only on television, but on 50 radio stations and printed in 40 weekly and ten daily newspapers.

As you might guess, Christensen deems Helms as the forerunner to conservative anger specialists like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, except that Helms packed his vitriol into less than five minutes a day.

Helms's editorials prompted complaints to the FCC which twice investigated the station - once delaying its license renewal. During one FCC investigation, WRAL announced that it would begin airing viewer responses to Helms. But Fletcher backed Helms, and Helms never muted his comments.

Helms was also behind the founding of the National Congressional Club, a very successful political action committee that was among the first to demonstrate that political advertising on television was superior to, and far more cost-effective than, direct-mail campaigns.

I still don't know what to make of Bono's partnership with the senator in 2000-2001 to provide $200 million to the relief of infants and children with AIDS in Africa. Helms had opposed AIDS research funding by the 1988 Kennedy-Hatch bill with the statement, "There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy." However, in all the coverage this weekend I cannot find another indication of his repentance for any of his other views.

So, that's what I spent reading this weekend - for "fun" - making myself getting angry, disgusted, and even more bewildered by the admiration being spewed in the media for this evil man.

But I then had the chance to go for a run yesterday - well, a jog, with a lot of sweating - on the beach at the Masonboro Inlet section of the North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR). While running, I noticed that a beachfront dweller had an American flag at half-staff. The prospect that Helms was being honored so - a person who led with racism and bigotry in his heart - was surely just a gesture of a misguided soul clinging to the old ways (until I read this morning that flags at the US Capitol and across NC were being lowered).

But just past the house, and in view of the half-mast flag, was a couple on a blanket enjoying the day just like so many couples and families I ran across that morning. The woman was very dark-skinned while the gentleman was most likely of European ancestry. And I smiled.

No matter how divisive, hateful, and powerful Helms once was, freedom and the pursuit of happiness can be delayed but never completely denied.

More like this

major props for not pandering to this inane desire we seem to have to rehabilitate upon death. Helms was just about the direct opposite of a national treasure and a cancer upon our body politic. His sole value seems to be the ethical education we get in contemplating just how delighted we are that he has finally passed.

By cashmoney (not verified) on 07 Jul 2008 #permalink

I lived in North Carolina under Helms. I swear it is a mystery to me how he got re-elected because very few people I knew liked him.

I am not one to say disparaging things about a recently deceased person. Believe me I said all those things about him when he was alive.

He was not a good man. He was not decent, he was not honest, and he harmed a lot of people, on purpose, in his life. These are not the characteristics of a good person, and such traits are not exemplary of American patriotism or even good citizenship.

There's no point in pretending otherwise.

But I don't have to deride him now. He's gone. He can't retaliate.

The real pain for me is that somehow our society has become so twisted that people like Helms are considered to be heroes.

That is much, much more disturbing to me. Because that means that even though he is gone, people will find new icons of backwardness and ignorance to worship.

What bothers me is not that Helms was an idiot, but that there are so many people out there who believe in the same kind of idiocy he embodied.

I too lived in NC at the end of Jesse's senate career. Unfortunately I never got the opportunity to vote against him. I couldn't believe the number of people singing his praises upon his death.

I understand that some people were raised in an environment and a time when it was okay to be a racist and a homophobe. A lot of that is generational, and will fortunately fade with the passing of time. But many people who were raised with those attitudes eventually evolved and came to see how misguided those ideas were. Jesse never evolved--he was an unrepentent bigot to the end, despite representing a state filled with people he outwardly hated.

I only wish Jesse could have lived long enough to see Barack Obama elected president.

From the same folks who brought you the eulogy of that other "great American," Sperm Thrumond........

By themadlolscientist (not verified) on 08 Jul 2008 #permalink

Oops, that should have been "Thurmond." Prevew buttn - gotta lern hwer it is! :-PPPPPPPPP

By themadlolscientist (not verified) on 08 Jul 2008 #permalink