"Jesse Helms was one of the kindest men I've ever met."
"Jesse was a gracious, polite Southern man from the old school."
"Mr. Helms, I know this might not be politically correct to say this thing, but I just think you should get a Nobel Prize for everything you've done to help keep down the niggers."
"Oops! Well thank you, I think."
The quotes above tell all you need to know of the Jesse Helms story. The first pair are two of the many accounts of Helms' private warmth and geniality that were tossed around by the political legend's admirers after he died on July 4. The third quote oozed out of a caller while Helms was a guest on Larry King Live in 1995. The fourth was Helms' reply to the caller. Taken together, they shed a light on both Helms and the two-faced, Old South ruling class culture he came from, embodied, and fiercely defended until the bitter end.
Since Helms' demise, the press has fed us stories about the kind, grandfatherly Jesse, the "rascal" who was friendly, polite and funny in private. Well, of course he was -- that's how Old South sovereigns have always worked -- mired in a moral schizophrenia that allowed them to smile charmingly among acquaintances while engaging in repugnant pursuits elsewhere. Think of antebellum planters who hosted elegant soirees, then got up the next morning to supervise the whipping of a runaway slave. Or cotton mill owners, who could chat and joke with the boys down at the Rotary Club and, without blinking an eye, give the order to lay off a quarter of their impoverished workforce. Helms, in a nutshell, was those folks' social descendents.
Last week's press coverage implied that since Helms was privately congenial and cordial, we can forget that his career was based on unadulterated, ignorant racism. And never mind his opposition to expanding women's rights, his destructive homophobic tirades, or his short-sighted dinosaur view of the rest of the world. Sorry, but no, that won't do.
Jesse Helms was first and foremost a public servant, not a party host, which makes his private niceties completely irrelevant. He was an important political figure, so it's Helms' public record that's of concern to North Carolinians. In close company, he was no doubt as kindly as he's described. But as a politician whose salary you paid, Helms dedicated his long career to unjust, uncivil, and plainly backward causes while spewing some of the most outrageous, hateful invective heard in Congress in the last century.
So far, state and national media haven't been forthright about the senator's corrosive influence on both state and national politics, nor have they acknowledged the extremism and vindictiveness of many of his political actions. So, in lieu of the mainstream press doing its duty, let's take a brief look at Helms' record. Warning: it's not a pretty sight.
Helms cut his political teeth on the notorious 1950 Willis Smith U.S. Senate campaign, in which he wrote virulently racist ad copy and press releases. Helms and his colleagues accused Smith's opponent, Frank Porter Graham (former president of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a United Nations official under President Truman), of promoting "race mixing," and urged "White People" to "Wake Up Before It's Too Late!" lest they find themselves having to share a bathroom with blacks one day. Smith won the election, but died three years into his term.
Helms did on-air editorials for WRAL-TV in Raleigh throughout the 1960s, ranting and railing against that era's full menu of societal changes. He regularly, and viciously, attacked the fledgling civil rights movement and was a major supporter of the so-called Speaker Ban, a 1963 state law that supposedly banned "Communists" from speaking at the state's public universities, but was actually a transparent attempt to keep civil rights leaders from speaking to the state's college students. The ban led to major protests by students at UNC at Chapel Hill, which Helms called the "University of Negroes and Communists." The Speaker Ban was eventually overturned.
Helms' racism continued unabated into his career in the U.S. Senate, where he strongly opposed establishing a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. because, in Helms' mind, the Nobel Peace Prize winner was a communist and a "sex pervert." He also forcefully opposed any attempts to end apartheid in South Africa, and he literally turned his back on Nelson Mandela during the latter's visit to Washington, D.C.
Helms kept getting voted back into the Senate time after time, shrewdly manipulating attention away from his tobacco-based financing by scapegoating artists and other "outsiders," ranging from African-Americans to gays and lesbians, while proclaiming in passing that people who die of AIDS deserve what they get. A man seemingly enraged by modern society, Helms spent much of his career careening around the Senate, hissing and stabbing at any sign of progress or cultural diversity, while coming down on the wrong side of important issues that affect North Carolinians. Let's look at some specifics in just three areas.
The Environment: Helms voted against almost every environmental bill before the Senate during his terms in office: he voted against the Clean Air Act; restrictions on the production of ozone-depleting chemicals; re-authorizing the Clean Water Act; requiring new oil tankers to have double hulls to prevent massive oil spills; providing funds to clean up toxic and hazardous waste dumps; funding to manage our natural lands; and even supported the resumption of clear-cutting in North Carolina's national forests.
Education: Helms consistently opposed measures to shore up our educational system, at times casting the lone vote against an education bill. He repeatedly voted against Head Start, funding for day care, aid to colleges and college students, vocational education programs, funding for handicapped education, and state grants to hire teachers and reduce class size.
Women's Rights: Helms strongly supported a constitutional amendment that would force all women to carry a pregnancy to term, regardless of the woman's desires or the circumstances of her impregnation, including rape and incest. He adamantly opposed America's participation in an international conference designed to fight discrimination against women.
Add to those three issues Helms' lifelong record as a race baiter and opponent of all civil rights bills; his campaign against the National Endowment for the Arts; his votes against campaign finance reform; his opposition to combating AIDS in this country, fueled by his hatred of gays (although he eventually supported the fight against AIDS in Africa, where most of the victims are at least straight), and you have a portrait of a bitter ideologue pursuing his own narrow, nostalgic view of America while real, immediate problems were screaming for attention.
Helms' bigotry didn't stop with the onset of a new century. He blocked the appointment of African-American judges in the national court district most populated by blacks; he stymied the appointment of any gays or lesbians to public office; and he continued to fight funding for the environment or the arts.
This is an all-too-brief overview of Jesse Helms' disturbing political history -- a history you'll be hard-pressed to find, in detail, in the mainstream press, which has so far treated Helms with a collective bout of amnesia concerning what he stood for, and stood against.
In private, Helms was no doubt a kindly old codger, but his public record -- and the damage he did to this state, its reputation, and the cause of rational progress in the nation -- shows something else entirely.
To read more commentary from John Grooms, visit www.theclogblog.com.