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Jesse Helms reconsidered

What I learned from furious readers

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Angry readers, fume no more -- I've seen the light. Your numerous e-mails in reaction to a recent column about the late Jesse Helms were enlightening and life-changing, even if full of odd spelling mistakes. I tried, but I couldn't resist the clarity and understanding of the obliging Monroe reader who claimed, "Yure not fit to wipe Jesse Helms' ass." Another discerning fan predicted, "I'm not wuried about you and your liberal buddys because you'll all go straight to HELL when you die!" Makes you think, huh?

The message that really made me stop and mull things over, though, was from Jeannine in Charlotte, who offered this insight: "You think you're better than Jesse, but you're just a fool that don't appreciate the South's grand old ways, like Jesse did. I guess that's not 'cool' enough for morans like you."

Whoa, I thought, wait a minute. Was Jeannine right? I pondered. I lost sleep. I walked into stuff. Had I shortchanged Helms, his followers, and my native region's history? I've thought this over carefully, dear readers, and I'm here to tell you that I've reformed. Jeannine was right: when Jesse died, it was the end of the world as we knew it.

Jesse Helms' career, I see now, was simply an exercise in nostalgia, a pining for the good old days and a worldview rooted in the gallantry of the Old South. Jesse, I fear, was probably one of the last remnants of the wonderful way of life he fought to the last to preserve.

I understand Jesse better now, as a reminder of the passions and beliefs I saw paraded around me as a boy growing up in the Piedmont Carolinas. Jesse represented all that was good and gentle about the "Old South." He may have come along a few decades too late, but I can imagine Jesse mingling among a group of dapper antebellum planters, chatting on the porch of a large white, columned mansion, chuckling as he turns down their offer of a mint julep, sipping an iced tea instead, talking in his genteel way to the assembled company, while a band of darkies fiddle and dance on the front lawn. Oops. Didn't mean to say that, actually, but, umm, you get my drift.

More to the point, Jesse was also a modern Southern man through and through, cut from the same cloth as the giants who forged modern North Carolina. What I've learned is that you can't criticize Jesse without condemning the like-minded heroes upon whose shoulders Charlotte businesses stand today. Those modern pioneers of politics and business took a desolate state that was suffocating under the iron rule of Yankee Reconstruction, and turned it around. These were men who, like Jesse, were high-minded and generous and believed in the stability and righteousness of a God-given world ruled by white men.

I'm talking about folks like the noble editors of the Charlotte Daily Observer, who in 1898 helped stoke the Southern patriotism of the good white folks of Wilmington until they took their city back from the black rabble that had captured it. Stolid men like Cameron "Good Roads Governor" Morrison, who connected our cities with asphalt, and, earlier, was a leader in the Red Shirt movement that, er, urged black men to refrain from voting. And of course, men like D.A. Tompkins and Daniel Stowe, revered textile industrialists whose roaring success gave birth to our city's role as a financial center.

Yes, these pioneers of progress in North Carolina were truly men after Jesse's heart. Real men's men who knew it was good for people, or at least other people, to work like dogs for a living -- and made sure their hired hands did so. And you can bet that the men who worked for them felt good, too, knowing they were making more money than the women or children working in the same mill. Yes, these visionary industrialists, newspapermen, bankers and politicians were Jesse's inspiration -- godly men who knew how to sic a private posse on godless communist "strikers," or put up the money to stop "voter registration" drives for the coloreds dead in their tracks.

Gone are the days Jesse loved, and which his supporters loved him for defending -- those good old days when an old black man knew enough to get off the sidewalk when a white child passed, something I saw with my own eyes at age 6. The days when unmarried women were virgins who favored tidy hairdos and wore decent clothes that covered their bodies (I can't believe I'm saying it, but Southern women these days could learn a thing or two from the Muslims). Days when the word "gay" was something you felt after you snuck a drink of champagne on New Year's Eve. And those folks they call "gay" today, well, they were, as Jesse so graciously put it, "degenerate and disgusting" -- although I hear they were great fun to mock and beat up occasionally for sport.

Now who wouldn't want to return to that beautiful, Christian way of life? I know I would, and I know Jesse Helms did, and that's why I gratefully thank Jeannine and the other readers who set me straight about our state's cuddly old curmudgeon. Jesse, come back!

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