I've only met Jesse Helms once. I was profiling him for two national magazines during his 1996 Senate race, and for two days I shadowed him around the US Capitol. He looked like a fragile, senescent bear and spoke with a mumble that the average Northerner might have had some trouble deciphering. He was harder than most to track down -- but finally, as a Senate Foreign Relations Committee was breaking up, I got my five minutes with the Republican icon.
"This isn't about Bosnia, senator," I started.
I asked Helms a question about the "homosexual lobby" -- one of my clients was a gay magazine -- and listened as he stumbled and evaded and lost his train of thought. He asked me to repeat the question. I have a stutter, and mid-sentence I hit a block.
"I can't understand you," the senator told me, then swiveled around and walked away.
It was easy at that moment to dismiss Helms as a doddering lightweight with stooped shoulders and an ineffectual streak of meanness. It was harder to see him for what he really was: a powerful national figure who ruthlessly (and, too often, effectively) pursued an obstructionist right-wing agenda.
During his three decades representing North Carolina in the Senate, Helms befriended human-rights abusers around the world; stalled important treaties and appointments; and launched spirited attacks on civil rights, AIDS funding and legalized abortion. He helped mastermind a brilliant fund-raising machine and had his fingers in everything from black-voter intimidation to a veiled threat against President Clinton's life. His name was the first thing strangers mentioned, usually with derision, when I told them I lived in North Carolina. Yet he also won all five of his senatorial races, trading in on white racial resentment, Christian conservatism, and an avuncular, countrified style.
Now, just before his 84th birthday, Helms has finally decided to share his story. Early this month, Random House released the former senator's Here's Where I Stand: A Memoir. Its 36 chapters offer no introspection, no sense of fallibility -- not even the basic elements of good storytelling. But we do get 300 pages of Helms' own words, or perhaps those of a second-rate ghostwriter. In that sense, Here's Where I Stand is an important historical document about one of America's most important 20th-century political figures.
It is also a curious exercise in political whitewash. For a senator whose very strength lay in his combative style, Helms has managed to portray himself as a lover of all humanity, from deceased Democrats Paul Wellstone ("a courageous defender of what he believed") and Hubert Humphrey (who allegedly told Helms "I love you" on his deathbed) to the entire Jewish people ("who prepared the way for the true Liberator of all mankind, Jesus Christ"). In fact, Helms writes, the Jews were one of two peoples whose histories inspired "the freedom Americans enjoy today." The others, of course, were the Anglo-Saxons.
Helms spends the first eight chapters of his autobiography outlining his life before the Senate, and they paint a Mayberryish picture of small-town North Carolina during the Jim Crow era. "My boyhood days were golden," he says: He grew up in Monroe, 25 miles from Charlotte, the son of plain folks who took in hobos in the middle of the night and fed them "Mama's biscuits" slathered with "generous helpings of fatback."
His father was a police chief who overlooked moonshine stills, eschewed the word "nigger" and reconciled a local grocer ("Mr. Bob") with the burglar who had stolen some dried beans the night before. "When the stolen goods were offered to Mr. Bob, he hugged this man who had robbed him," Helms recounts in one of many aw-shucks tales from his childhood.
So perfect were those days that even the high-school principal, Ray House, borders on sainthood: "If it were possible to assemble all the young people who went to school under him and take a poll, every one of them would say 'I loved him.'"
Helms spends precisely two paragraphs on his political awakening. He attributes this conversion to his father-in-law, Jacob Coble, who sold shoes wholesale and helped him understand "how the strength of a free-market system is interwoven with the true strength of our democracy." Helms' first up-close experience with electoral politics came during the 1950 Democratic primary for the US Senate. The incumbent, Frank Porter Graham, was the ex-president of UNC-Chapel Hill and, in the words of former News & Observer publisher Jonathan Daniels, "the single most important human force for enlightenment in the state." Challenging Graham was Willis Smith, a retired state legislator whose campaign accused the incumbent of being a race-mixer and communist sympathizer.
"White people, WAKE UP," said one handbill. "Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wives and daughters in your mills and factories?" Another handbill featured a doctored photograph of Graham's wife dancing with an African-American man. Radio ads proclaimed, "Do you know that 28 percent of North Carolina's population is colored?" The crude tactics worked: Smith eked by Graham in the runoff, then went on to win the Senate seat in the general election. Helms later became Smith's administrative assistant.