Jesse Helms 1921-2008

It is very easy to see former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, who died today at the age of 86, through a one-dimensional looking glass. No political figure since Joseph McCarthy has been so vilified by the opposition. And few have been as lionized by supporters.

He was a champion of Christian conservatives, a fierce opponent of Castro, a tireless worker for bringing freedom to the captive nations of the old Soviet Union, a bulldog about waste and fraud at the United Nations, and a thorn in the side to liberals for 30 years in the Senate.

He was also a homophobe, an avowed sexist, and many would say a "white racist." That last blow was delivered by the dean of Washington columnists, David Broder, in a 2001 piece after Helms announced his retirement:

There are plenty of powerful conservatives in government. A few, such as Don Rumsfeld and Henry Hyde, have been around as long as Helms and have their own significant roles in 20th century political history. 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.

Helms opposed civil rights and affirmative action legislation. This in and of itself did not make him a racist. But there is little doubt that the North Carolina senator used race as a wedge in his campaigns, nor is there any argument that early in his career he allied himself with some of the most nauseating segregationists of the era.

And yet, his Senate office was, if not a model of diversity, a place that was at odds with his perceived bigotry. No less a personage than James Meredith, the first black student at the University of Mississippi, was employed by Helms as a special assistant from 1989-91. His press secretary was black as were several administrative assistants.

And contrast Broder's characterization of Helms with this by Madeleine Albright:

Jesse Helms and I have a special -- even an odd -- friendship. We both believe in America's greatness, but we often have very different ideas about what makes America great. We have become friends out of acknowledgement of our differences -- out of respect, really. When we agree we accomplish a great deal, as on the enlargement of NATO or the streamlining of the State Department. When we do not agree, as on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or agreements protecting women and children, neither of us wins. That illustrates a truth many of us learn soon after coming to Washington. Not even friendship -- not even a dance at my 60th birthday party -- could make Jesse Helms an arms controller. But our friendship demonstrates another truth that too many people in Washington forget: As he always said, we can disagree agreeably. For that example I will always be grateful to the man who was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee while I was the secretary of state, and who will remain my friend.

As with most everything in life, things -- and people -- are not always as they appear. Helms could be the courtly southern gentleman as he apparently was with Albright, while being an absolute snake as he was with former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun.