05 July 2008

Jesse Helms

(By the way, Mr. Senator, your necktie clashes with your shirt.)

Remember “compassionate conservatism”? That was the slogan George Bush promoted during his campaign for the presidency in 2000, designed to make it easier for people of goodwill to vote Republican. Why was that tactic necessary? Because people like Jesse Helms made the party seem crabbed, paranoid, ignorant, bigoted, and heartless.

The former South Carolina Senator has died. I never met him. Though my time in Washington overlapped with his, it’s no surprise that our paths never crossed. I worked for Dan Rather, while Helms worked strenuously to get Dan fired. Whether or not he actually believed it, Helms gained a lot of attention by claiming that Dan was politically biased; attacking the press in general, and Dan in particular, had proved useful to Richard Nixon, and Helms revived the strategy and expanded on it. To come anywhere near Dan, much less to shake his hand in a Capitol corridor, would have damaged Helms’ carefully constructed smear campaign. As Dan himself might put it, there was more chance that the Pope would ride through the room on a giraffe than that I’d ever meet Jesse Helms.

So it’s up to others to tell you whether, in private life, he was as mean an old cuss as he was in public. From my vantage, he seemed as far from a “happy warrior” as any man who ever went to Congress.

Though he used the Bible and states’ rights to palliate many of his political positions, his view of those institutions was narrow and didn’t stand up to scrutiny. He opposed just about any kind of comfort or assistance to people with AIDS, on the grounds that it was spread by homosexual acts, of the kind for which God punished Sodom and Gomorrah. Never mind that, if you look it up, God punished those ancient cities for inhospitality — for lack of compassion — and not for sexual deviancy or license. Helms claimed that his staunch opposition to civil rights legislation wasn’t racist or personal (“I have many black friends”) but merely a principled stand against federal interference in the business of the states. Yet his election campaigns remorselessly transmitted racist messages and played on resentments that, alas, lie close to the surface in many parts of the South. Never mind the suffering that came of state-sponsored segregation and the sanction that Jim Crow laws gave to many of the worst episodes in American history.

He claimed to oppose Communism. One of his stated reasons for opposing a national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., was that investigations into Dr. King’s alleged ties to the Communist Party hadn’t been completed to his satisfaction; he co-authored the Helms-Burton Act to hit Castro’s Cuba hard in 1996, when that country was staggering without the prop of the Soviet Union. Yet it’s hard to see how “suspicion” of Dr. King wasn’t more racist than political, and Helms-Burton provided Castro with a scapegoat and a rallying point when he needed them most, while forcing the United States to squander an opportunity to engage Cuba constructively and to bring about positive change. As the original Manchurian Candidate demonstrated, it would be difficult for any Communist regime to find more effective agents than hardcore Cold Warriors such as Jesse Helms.

As for his contentious relationship with the press, and his persistent claims that reporters, newspapers, and networks were promoting a specific political agenda, it’s to be borne in mind that this is exactly what Helms himself did, first as a newspaper reporter and then as a radio commentator, before he went to Washington. (He always maintained that his true goal in life was to be a journalist. Yeah, and Hitler wanted to be a painter.) If you want to calculate the lasting damage that attacks by Helms and the hard right did to the American press, start by looking at the coverage of the buildup to the war in Iraq. Fearful of reprisals, the watchdog press rolled over and played dead.

What strikes me is how little good Helms did during his time on earth and how little happiness he appeared to derive. His only pleasure seemed to come at the expense of others, usually those weaker than himself. He liked to say that he was a champion for old-fashioned, small-town values, a system in which everybody knew his place. That’s great if your place is sitting on the veranda, sipping a mint julep — not so great if your place is in the fields, picking cotton and afraid you’re about to be lynched because you had the temerity to vote.

Jesse Helms was an ugly, narrow-minded, mean-spirited little man, and yet I’m sorry to see him die. For, if he’d lived, he’d have seen a black man in the White House. And I’d have liked to watch the bastard squirm.

UPDATE: It’s not often that my brother and I address the same topic in our blogs, but he’s written his own observations on the passing of Jesse Helms. You can find his remarks here.