The Scumheel Tarheel
July 6, 2008
It’s been a great weekend, and I’m in too good a frame of mind to let my thoughts be sullied by the career of Jesse Helms. Hendrik Hertzberg, as it turns out, wrote the perfect obituary for Helms, albeit a few years early, on the occasion of his retirement from the Senate in 2001:
Helms never bothered with the soft bigotry of low expectations. He has always preferred the hard stuff, undiluted by the branch water of euphemism. Many of the Helms retrospectives of recent days have dated his entry into serious politics to 1960, when, after having spent most of his thirties as a banking lobbyist, he began delivering nightly five-minute commentaries on a Raleigh television station and on something called the Tobacco Radio Network—the job that propelled him into the Senate, twelve years later. But as far back as 1950, Helms, then twenty-eight, helped run what the Duke University historian William H. Chafe has called “the bitterest, ugliest, most smear-ridden campaign of modern times,” the race to unseat Frank P. Graham, the former president of the University of North Carolina and probably the most distinguished North Carolinian ever to sit in the United States Senate. “The Graham campaign is generally viewed as the most pivotal in modern southern history since it set the precedent for the race-baiting and red-baiting tactics that were later employed so widely by politicians like Orval Faubus, George Wallace, and Jesse Helms,” Chafe has written. “Helms, of course, helped invent these tactics.” Over the succeeding half century, Helms changed but little. His own campaigns have invariably been powered by appeals to prejudice, racial and otherwise. In recent years the focus of his bigotry has shifted increasingly toward gays and lesbians. But his disdain for people of color (exemplified by his “humorous” habit, in private, of referring to any black person as “Fred”) continues to find ways of expressing itself. He is the Senate’s most reliable opponent of any measure aimed at securing the rights or improving the conditions of African-Americans. In 1994, when Nelson Mandela visited the Capitol, Helms ostentatiously turned his back on him.
How like Helms to kick the bucket during Independence Day weekend, and thus give the knuckle-draggers, Kloset Klansmen and religious whackjobs a chance to foul the meaning of patriotism by singing his praises. If you want to take your gag reflex out for a spin, check out some of the more bizarre tributes the winger pundits are excreting on behalf of this disgusting man — one of the sleaziest creatures ever to leave a slimy trail through the halls of government.
Do I sound extreme in my contempt for Jesse Helms? Extremism in the denunciation of such odious creeps is no vice. America becomes a better country in exact proportion to the distance it puts between itself and something like Jesse Helms.