According to a former aide, Jesse Helms was “very comfortable” in his final moments.
If there were any justice, he might have experienced something of the final moments of the many people for whose deaths he should–in some measure at least–be held responsible.
Like Medgar Evers, shot in the back by a Ku Klux Klan member outside his home in Mississippi in 1963, staggering 30 feet before collapsing in agony. Helms emerged in political life as part of the Jim Crow segregationist power structure in the South–the official face of Klan terrorism–and he never, to the end of his life, acknowledged its crimes.
Or the American nuns who were raped and murdered by the right-wing death squads in El Salvador, four victims among tens of thousands in the 1980s. The Salvadoran paramilitaries were a special favorite of Helms–he once said of the Hitler-loving death-squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson that he was “a free enterprise man and deeply religious.”
Or any of the 6 million children around the world who die every year of hunger or related diseases. As a senator for 30 years, Helms led the crusade to reduce U.S. international aid to what he called “foreign rat holes.”
The list of deaths where Jesse Helms might have stood trial as an accessory to murder could go on and on. Which makes it all the more infuriating to read the sanctimonious tributes paid to him after his death.
The obituaries came, of course, with polite disapproval of the indefensible–like Helms’ 1983 Senate filibuster against legislation to establish a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King. But Helms was nevertheless celebrated as a man of “stubborn principle.” Never mind that the principles Jesse Helms actually stood for would make most people’s skin crawl.
George Bush called Helms “a kind, decent and humble man.” But Jesse Helms was none of these things. He was a cold-hearted defender of wealth, privilege and power at any cost, an opponent of justice and equality and a shameless self-promoter–and if he excelled at anything, it was the cynical manipulation of the U.S. political system toward these indecent ends.
* * *
HELMS GOT his start in politics working on the 1950 Senate campaign of Willis Smith in North Carolina–justly known as one of the sleaziest in the history of American politics.
Smith challenged the incumbent senator, Frank Porter Graham, as the representative of the hard-line segregationists who had backed Strom Thurmond’s 1948 States’ Rights Party presidential campaign. Among the ads created by Helms and his team: “White people, wake up before it is too late. Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and your daughters, in your mills and factories? Frank Graham favors mingling of the races.”
Another ad featured a doctored photo of Graham’s wife dancing with a Black man. Helms’ biographer has documented that Helms himself manipulated the image.
Smith won, and Helms went to Washington to serve as a Senate staffer. When he came back to North Carolina, it was as executive director of the state’s banking association–a connection that proved helpful for political fundraising in years to come.
Helms won a seat on the Raleigh city council and got a job as a television commentator, where he became known for his thundering attacks on the civil rights movement as a cabal of communists and “moral degenerates.” He regularly referred to the University of North Carolina as the “University of Negroes and Communists.”
As the civil rights movement gathered strength, Helms helped to deliver the counter-threats of deadly violence from the forces of the state and the Klan. “The Negro cannot count forever,” he warned in a 1963 commentary, “on the kind of restraint that has thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic and interfere with other men’s rights.” That summer, Klansmen Byron de la Beckwith, took his revenge on Medgar Evers.
All this time, Helms was a Democrat. The Jim Crow South had been ruled by the “Dixiecrats” from the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction a century before. But by the early 1970s, in the wake of the upheavals of the civil rights struggle and the 1960s social movements, the political landscape of the South was shifting.
Helms changed parties to the Republicans and ran for the U.S. Senate in 1972, and he brought with him the traditions of the Dixiecrats in honoring Robert E. Lee and singing “Dixie,” the anthem of the Confederacy, at party events–with the aim of winning over white voters angered by the Democrats’ identification with civil rights.
* * *
AS A senator, Helms never wavered from the right-wing agenda, no matter what the issue. He heaped abuse on gay and lesbian rights, and compared abortion rights to the Nazi Holocaust. He led the attempt to gut the National Endowment for the Arts, because it was “promoting the homosexual agenda.”
“Helms favors a big-spending, activist government–one that aids those in economic power,” wrote journalist Eric Bates in a 1995 article for Mother Jones. “He voted to bail out the savings and loan industry, for example, and has seldom met a big-ticket missile system he didn’t like. By contrast, he has voted to slash school lunches for impoverished children, medical care for disabled veterans, prescription drugs for the elderly, and wages for working families.”
In particular, Helms made his mark on foreign policy as a leading Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Helms was a zealous opponent of any left-wing force in Latin America and a booster for some of the most corrupt, violent and dictatorial regimes the U.S. ever sponsored.
The Helms-Burton law, passed under Bill Clinton, bars the U.S. from normalizing relations with Cuba as long as Fidel Castro or his brother Raul are part of the country’s government. As one of his last acts, Helms helped orchestrate the campaign against Haiti’s democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, setting the stage for the U.S.-backed coup against Aristide in 2004.
But whatever his other lowlights, Helms’ political career was most closely associated with racism.
Faced with a tight battle for reelection in 1990 and 1996 against African American Democrat Harvey Gantt, Helms reached back to the tactics of the early days. One campaign commercial from 1990 showed a white fist crumpling up a job application, with these words underneath: “You needed that job…but they had to give it to a minority.”
In the end, this grotesque appeal to racism symbolizes the lasting political significance of Jesse Helms.
Beyond his own personal success (five terms in the Senate, and, not coincidentally, a millionaire), Helms was an essential figure in the remaking of the Republican Party. His National Congressional Club became one of the most important political fundraising machines in Washington, promoting right-wing forces within the Republican Party that set the agenda in the 1980s and after.
And as a Southern Democrat-turned-Republican, Helms personified the Republicans’ “Southern Strategy” of using racism to win a new electoral base. After the civil rights movement, the language had to be different–open white supremacy was discredited. But politicians like Helms excelled at using issues like crime, busing and affirmative action to rehabilitate the use of racism in U.S. politics.
Helms’ own success was reflected in the triumph of Ronald Reagan–who Helms could legitimately claim to have rescued from political obscurity.
In 1976, Reagan ran against Gerald Ford, the incumbent president handpicked by Richard Nixon before he resigned, for the Republican presidential nomination. Reagan was defeated in all the early primaries. But in North Carolina, Helms mobilized his political machine and delivered an upset victory that allowed Reagan to keep the battle going until finally giving up at the Republican convention.
Four years later, Reagan won the nomination, and he returned Helms’ favor by kicking off his 1980 presidential campaign with a call for “states’ rights” in Philadelphia, Miss., the site of the Klan’s 1964 killings of three civil rights workers.
Helms’ racist attack ads–veiled and not-so-veiled–became a staple for Republican candidates, from George Bush Sr.’s “Willie Horton” commercial against Michael Dukakis to the latest atrocities served up about Barack Obama.
Long-time adviser Carter Wrenn wasn’t exaggerating when he said that Helms caused “the realignment of the Republican Party…You can’t really separate the growth of the Republican Party from Jesse’s career.”
Considering the misery and suffering inflicted by three decades of the right-wing agenda setting the terms of U.S. politics, there isn’t any more damning indictment of Jesse Helms.