Columnists > Voices

Campaign of one

Jesse Helms, 1921-2008

Issue: "NextGen worship," July 26, 2008

Jesse Helms once got me in trouble with my neighbor. In 1990 she and her husband sported a sign in their front yard for Harvey Gantt, the former mayor of Charlotte who was running against Helms to become the nation's only black senator. Noting my lack of signage, my neighbor challenged, "Surely you're not voting for That Man?"

After I explained that I liked Helms' opposition to abortion and to government overspending, she sputtered, "You're too young to be so narrow-minded."

Helms won the election, but he continued to be a pariah among non-conservatives in his home state of North Carolina and in Washington. And to make those who agreed with him easy to caricature. It would be funny, were it not so pathological, how the vitriol continues past the five-term senator's July 4 death. Christopher Hitchens, egged on by a sneering New York Times obituary, denounced Helms in Slate as "a senile racist buffoon." Salon's James Hannaham, not to be outdone, called Helms "hellspawn" in a July 11 obit and observed that Helms' death "sent shudders of guilty relief through the spines of liberals everywhere."

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Liberals can put the guilt to rest. They feel the freedom to write acid prose about Helms because-unlike contemporary politicians who run from who they are-he felt no need to. He filled a wall of his Capitol Hill office with political cartoons blasting him and enjoyed being called "Senator No" for blocking aid and spending bills. He would not be outdone by their posthumous mockery.

But his critics often missed the backstory. Helms was a Democrat until he switched parties in 1970, and Tarheel party loyalists did not forgive him. His elections were hard fought, ugly, and on both sides often racially tinged-in part because he opposed affirmative action. Helms said he opposed such programs because he didn't think they worked: As Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter recently complained, "For both parties, affirmative action represents a way to pretend to be doing something-what I have long called racial justice on the cheap." In 1983 Helms filibustered passage of a bill creating the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday-but not because he believed the government shouldn't honor a black man. Like other conservatives, he did not like King's associations with "far-left elements" and noted that Congress never set aside a national day for Abe Lincoln.

In 1995 I found myself sitting in Helms' Washington office awaiting an interview on a cold January day. He arrived calm and cheerful, not the bug-eyed madman the cartoonists were portraying. He had just become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was taking his usual amount of grief for wanting to cut foreign aid. It was a remarkable interview, considering that his staff slotted us 15 minutes and an hour later the tape recorder was still going.

It was notable also for two stories he told: one about a group of Palestinian orphans he had recently visited in the West Bank, moving him to talk about his son Charles, an orphan with cerebral palsy whom he and his wife Dot adopted at age 9. Another was about his father, the police chief of Monroe, N.C. When someone stole groceries out of a local store, the senior Helms took his son with him to investigate, found the culprit, a young black man with the goods, and took him back to the store owner: "I don't want to arrest him because he's got four kids. Would you put this on my bill and let me pay you for it and let him work it off?" the police chief asked the grocer. Helms said the incident taught him the value of helping out of compassion rather than obligation, and of giving the disadvantaged work to do instead of forms to fill out.

Those lessons made him comfortable being a campaign of one. "I call attention to a guy named Pontius Pilate, who abdicated his responsibility to a mob. Must the mob always rule?" he said in a Senate speech that year.

Helms neglected those lessons when it came to AIDS victims, and he lived to regret it. In 2005 he told WORLD reporter Jamie Dean that he was "ashamed" he had opposed AIDS funding. A change of heart led to his working with U2 lead singer Bono in 2002 to pass the first major appropriation of AIDS assistance to Africa. He said then, "I know that, like the Samaritan traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, we cannot turn away when we see our fellow man in need." In 2005 he said more simply: "I was wrong."


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