Announcing Retirement, Helms Deserves Scrutiny, Not Praise

Jesse Helms has been the source of some of the worst invective spewed in Congress since the abolition of slavery. He remains, even as he approaches his 80th year on earth and his 30th year in the U.S. Senate, an unrepentant demagogue, buoyed over the decades by playing upon the worst prejudices of his fellow Americans.

You wouldn't know this, though, by the majority of media coverage given to Senator No's much-ballyhooed announcement that he would not seek a sixth term in 2002.

Bland summaries of his political career have instead focused on him as an old-school conservative icon or Cold War soldier who never gave up the Reaganesque faith. The coverage has invariably included references to Helms' mounting physical infirmities. He therefore comes across, especially on TV, as very vulnerable, a put-upon old man deserving of sympathy instead of critique.

It would not hurt, however, to remind people that, underneath the human veneer of a good ol' boy grandfather, beats the heart of one of the most prolific bigots to ever win election, time and again, to the Senate.

Don't believe it? Let's take a quick history lesson.

Throughout the 1960s, Helms did the on-air editorials for WRAL-TV in Raleigh, the state capital. They were ostensibly based on the issues of the day, but, lucky for Helms, the issues of the day included civil rights, communism and the Vietnam War. Helms regularly attacked the fledgling civil rights movement and supported the so-called Speaker Ban, a 1963 order passed by the state legislature that banned known and suspected Communists from speaking at the state's public universities.

The Speaker Ban was eventually overturned after much mockery and statewide disobedience, but not before Helms used it as a springboard to become the first Republican elected to the Senate from North Carolina in the 20th century.

Of course, for Helms, the invective started well before the tumultuous 1960s.

In 1950, progressive Frank Porter Graham, the popular former president of the University of North Carolina and a United Nations official under President Truman, was seeking his first full term in the Senate. He had been appointed in 1949 to fill a vacancy.

Graham was a liberal by any conventional measure of the term in the 1950s South. He was for civil rights, for the rights of the working class, particularly in North Carolina's textile mills, and for international cooperation with America's allies.

Graham's opponent in the Democratic primary, Raleigh attorney Willis Smith, ran a campaign of blatant racism, urging "White People Wake Up" through widely distributed fliers and signs. Graham lost the primary, and, because North Carolina was then a one-party state, Smith went on to win the general election.

One of Smith's most enthusiastic operatives during that campaign was a young Democrat named Jesse Alexander Helms.

Helms would turn Republican before his 1972 run, but his nastiness would remain unchanged. He would, in fact, be a pioneer of the highly personalized negative campaigning that has become a staple for American politics.

Take his first Senate race. Helms ran against Nick Galifianakis, a congressman and lawyer of Greek descent. Helms played up Galifianakis' ethnicity with a slogan of "Helms: He's One of Us," never explaining who "Us" was and never having to, really.

Flash forward 18 years to the 1990 Senate race. Former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, an African-American, is leading Helms in some polls. Helms is well-known for not actively campaigning until the end of a race and, even then, doing so largely through advertisements.

Near the November election date, Helms unleashed a TV ad that proved decisive. The ad showed white hands crumpling up a job-rejection letter. A voice-over intoned: "You needed the job. You were the most qualified. But they gave it to a minority because of racial quotas." The ad finished off Gantt's campaign that year. Similar tactics were used during a rematch in 1996, with identical results.

The 1990s remained a banner decade for Helms' bigotry. During a Larry King Live appearance in 1995, almost a half-century after his auspicious political debut with the Willis Smith campaign, a caller phoned in with this particular praise: "And Mr. Helms, I know this might not be politically correct these days, but I just think you should get a Nobel Peace Prize for everything you've done to keep down the niggers."

Helms thanked the caller, but later sputtered an apology after prompting by guest host Robert Novak.

In 1997, Helms, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stymied the appointment of James Hormel, an openly gay man, to be the ambassador to Luxembourg. President Clinton eventually appointed Hormel during a 1999 Senate recess, thereby bypassing the powerful committee that Helms chaired until Democrats retook control of the Senate this summer.

And just this past June, Helms successfully spearheaded an initiative that blocks federal money to school districts that deny the Boy Scouts of America equal access to their facilities because of the scouts' ban on homosexuals. Helms praised the measure as an effort to combat what he called "the organized lesbians and homosexuals in this country of ours."

Now back to the present day and the end of our all too brief look at Helms' disturbing political history. It is a history you'll be hard-pressed to find in the mainstream press, which is greeting Helms' exit from the public arena with a collective amnesia about just what kind of person he actually was and remains.

Helms may seem like a kindly old gentleman, but he is something else entirely.

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