Jessie Helms Dies

I will have a lot more to say about Senator Jessie Helms later on this afternoon. Right now, I can say that Helms should be admired by all. Whether you believe in his politics or not, he did stand by his convictions. He also showed everyone what a determined senator can do.

Think Progress points out that the former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, Harvey Gantt, who ran against Helms in 1990, was defeated in part by a racially based advertisement which reinforced North Carolinians worst racial fears.

From New York Times:

Jesse Helms, the former North Carolina senator whose courtly manner and mossy drawl barely masked a hard-edged conservatism that opposed civil rights, gay rights, foreign aid and modern art, died early Friday. He was 86.

Mr. Helms’s former chief of staff, Jimmy Broughton, told The Associated Press that the former senator died of natural causes in Raleigh.

In a 52-year political career that ended with his retirement from the Senate in 2002, Mr. Helms became a beacon for the right wing of American politics, a lightning rod for the left, and, often, a mighty pain for Presidents whatever their political leaning. (more… )

Update: From TCR

The WaPo’s David Broder wrote a column in August 2001, shortly after Helms announced he would not seek re-election. Broder, who would hardly qualify as a reflexive liberal ideologue, did a fine job explaining exactly what made Helms politically significant, and precisely why he’ll be remembered.

What really sets Jesse Helms apart is that he is the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country — a title that one hopes will now be permanently retired. A few editorials and columns came close to saying that. But the squeamishness of much of the press in characterizing Helms for what he is suggests an unwillingness to confront the reality of race in our national life. […]

What is unique about Helms — and from my viewpoint, unforgivable — is his willingness to pick at the scab of the great wound of American history: the legacy of slavery and segregation. He inflamed racial resentment against African Americans.

Many of the accounts of Helms’s retirement linked him with another prospective retiree, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Both these Senate veterans switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party when the Democrats began pressing for civil rights legislation in the 1960s. But there is a great difference between them. Thurmond, who holds the record for the longest anti-civil rights filibuster, accepted change. For three decades he has treated African Americans and black institutions as respectfully as he treats all his other constituents.

To the best of my knowledge, Helms has never done what the late George Wallace did well before his death — recant and apologize for his use of racial issues. And that use was blatant.

In 1984, when Helms faced his toughest opponent in Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, the late Bill Peterson, one of the most evenhanded reporters I have ever known, summed up what “some said was the meanest Senate campaign in history.”

“Racial epithets and standing in school doors are no longer fashionable,” Peterson wrote, “but 1984 proved that the ugly politics of race are alive and well. Helms is their master.”

A year before the election, when public polls showed Helms trailing by 20 points, he launched a Senate filibuster against the bill making the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday. Thurmond and the Senate majority were on the other side, but the next poll showed Helms had halved his deficit.

All year, Peterson reported, “Helms campaign literature sounded a drumbeat of warnings about black voter-registration drives…. On election eve, he accused Hunt of being supported by ‘homosexuals, the labor union bosses and the crooks’ and said he feared a large ‘bloc vote.’ What did he mean? ‘The black vote,’ Helms said.” He won, 52 percent to 48 percent.

In 1990, locked in a tight race with an African American Democrat, former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt, Helms aired a final-week TV ad that showed a pair of white hands crumpling a rejection letter, while an announcer said, “You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.” Once again, he pulled through.

That is not a history to be sanitized.

Helms wasn’t a nice guy or even a good guy. He was a cornerstone of the Republican party for decades. I think that this says something about the Republican party, North Carolina (the state in which I live) and the United States. Unfortunately, what it says isn’t good.

At the risk of sounding heartless, the same is true on the day of Helms’ death.

2 Responses

  1. Doctor Thompson–

    I understand–in part–why you are choosing to remember the late Senator Helms. However, I think admiration is too strong an emotion when speaking about how “all” should feel for this man. I can respect his differences, and try to understand where his points of view come from. However, personally, I cannot admire Senator Helms; I cannot hold him in high esteem simply because he stands by convictions.


  2. I agree. I think that i admired how he used his power. The vast majority of senators are less than flies on the wall. He stood out for all of the wrong reasons. It would have been amazing if he was a force good but as you note, he really wasn’t a force for good.

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Errington C. Thompson, MD

Dr. Thompson is a surgeon, scholar, full-time sports fan and part-time political activist. He is active in a number of community projects and initiatives. Through medicine, he strives to improve the physical health of all he treats.


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