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.
The story is that Helms and Braun were sharing an elevator in the Senate during the time that Braun and some other colleagues were railing against the use of the Confederate flag as part of state banners. Helms turned to his friend, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah), and said, “Watch me make her cry. I’m going to make her cry. I’m going to sing ‘Dixie’ until she cries.” Even Helms defenders don’t doubt the authenticity of the story although they point out that Helms was probably trying to be funny. Needless to say, Braun did not get the joke.
By any measure, Helms was a powerful man in the Senate. He singlehandedly held up American dues paid to the UN until they reformed the budget process and, more importantly, reduced the required contribution by the United States to that body. He also was a Senate leader in preventing normalization of relations with Cuba by sponsoring an amendment with Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) that strengthened the embargo by placing sanctions against foreign companies that did business with Cuba. He also almost singlehandedly derailed granting Most Favored Nation trading status to China.
His fundraising organization, the North Carolina Congressional Club, was one of the biggest boosters of conservative candidates during the 1970s and 80s. Some credit Helms with making Ronald Reagan’s victory possible, but that is almost surely an exaggeration. Helms rescued Reagan’s candidacy in 1976 by helping him to win the North Carolina primary after five straight losses to Gerald Ford, but by 1980, Reagan had wrapped up the nomination by the time the North Carolina primary rolled around. But dozens of conservatives came to Congress riding on Jesse Helm’s money, a feat that Republicans were forever grateful.
Beyond his ability to raise money and his actions as a senator, there is Helms, the conservative bull terrier — some would say a vicious, unprincipled, divisive, Republican attack dog whose race baiting and gay bashing put him beyond the pale. His constant and vitriolic attacks on liberals foreshadowed the preferred medium of talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.
Conservatives point out that Helms was only giving as good as he got. In truth, Helms became a poster boy for liberal fund raisers who constantly invoked his name in appeals for money and portrayed the courtly, modest Helms as the devil incarnate. Helms reveled in his position and gleefully skewered his liberal targets with a mixture of venom and humor.
Who was Jesse Helms? I believe that he was a man out of his time. He was proudly, even ignorantly old fashioned. His manners and mores reflected his 1930s and 40s upbringing, and formulated his attitudes toward race, women, and gays that he stuck with until the end of his political career. Most segregationists of his generation — Wallace, Thurmond, Eastland, Russell — eventually made peace with the government on civil rights and came to accept the “New South.” I’m not entirely sure Helms ever signed the treaty.
That said, there is no denying his large impact on the government in the 1980s and 90s nor the impact of his larger than life personality on the Senate. Unlike some who will be remembered for their accomplishments, Helms will be remembered for his colorful losing battles against everything from trying to deny the Martin Luther King holiday to his unsuccessful fight to cut off funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
He stood up for what he believed, and because he became a target of liberals he was loved for it by conservatives. He was seen on the right as a champion of traditional morality, which is probably his real legacy to conservatives.
A complex man with a mixed legacy, Jesse Helms will always be associated with the rise of conservative power in government and a beacon to those who viewed with approval his uncompromising stands on issues.