Jesse Helms is dead. The autopsy revealed the cause of death to be our benevolent Lord fixing a mistake He made 83 years ago.
Helms, and the high esteem with which he is held in the modern conservative movement, is the GOP's dirty little secret. Skeleton in the closet. Elephant in the room. Pick a metaphor and run with it. As we wade through the cloying paeans to this "champion of conservative values" and "unwavering champion of those struggling for liberty" (as our President put it) there is a lot of winking and nudging going on. For modern conservatives fall into two categories regarding a relic like Helms: either they are embarassed by him and issue mild, perfunctory tributes or they praise him as a proxy for what they want to say but can't.
Make absolutely no mistake about it, regardless of how many innocuous, high-minded terms we have adopted in the last 25 years to obscure it: Helms wasn't about "state's rights" or "conservative values" or "limited government", unless those terms are euphamisms for segregation, segregation, and segregation, respectively. He was a racist. He was a hardened, mean, explicit, brutal racist. He believed in white supremacy (as we shall see in a moment) both politically and ideologically. He opposed every conceivable piece of civil rights legislation in the past half-century because he solidified his worldview in 1948 and refused to update it. He didn't stand virtually alone in opposing the MLK Holiday for any of the pseudo-principled reasons he espoused; he did it, like everything else he did in his Congressional career, to strike a symbolic blow for white Americans who wanted to, but couldn't, put them colored fellas back in their place. Too harsh? Like a caller during his 1995 appearance on Larry King Live said, his admirers thanked him “for everything you’ve done to help keep down the niggers.”
Helms replied, “Well thank you, I think.”
But wait, there's more. On the superior intelligence of whites:
“No intelligent Negro citizen should be insulted by a reference to this very plain fact of life. It is time to face honestly and sincerely the purely scientific statistical evidence of natural racial distinction in group intellect. … There is no bigotry either implicit or intended in such a realistic confrontation with the facts of life."
A Helms-written campaign ad for Willis Smith in 1950:
“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.”
We could do this all day. He called the Civil Rights Act the "single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress" and asked:
"Are civil rights only for Negroes? White women in Washington who have been raped and mugged on the streets in broad daylight have experienced the most revolting sort of violation of their civil rights. The hundreds of others who have had their purses snatched by Negro hoodlums may understandably insist that their right to walk the street unmolested was violated."
And don't forget something I've posted on this site before, the single most despicable piece of campaign advertising devised in the modern era – the 'White Hands' commercial from Helms-Gantt 1990.
The National Review's Michael Graham stated "This is one of the disturbing legacies of Jesse Helms. (He) was in fact an avowed and unapologetic segregationist." The meek David Broder was even more blunt in his homage to Helms' retirement, "Jesse Helms, White Racist." That the right glosses over or ignores this fact is telling. When the Christian Post writes a piece on Helms' death and only slips one sentence in at the end – "But Helms' hardline conservatism did not leave him unscathed by critics. He was criticized for commentaries he made in the 1960s against civil rights…" – one must question their motives. That's it? We note that "critics" (unappeasable, hysterical liberals who would criticize anything a god-fearing man like Helms said) objected to "commentaries he made in the 1960s" (none of which we'll quote here!) against "civil rights." If they think that those comments and beliefs were restricted to the 1960s, they stopped paying attention to Helms in 1970.
No, the Christian Post and President Bush and far-righters everywhere don't praise Helms in grand, vague terms because they don't realize he was a racist. They praise him as a proxy for their own beliefs, beliefs that only Helms was willing to spout publicly in the modern political environment. And unlike George Wallace or Strom Thurmond, Helms never, ever yielded. Never repented. Never backpedaled. Never softened. The Heritage Foundation calls him a "champion" and a "man of principle," a comment explicable only if "White Power!" counts as a principle.
This is what the mainstream conservatives of today, especially younger ones, want to forget. They want to forget how heavily their post-New Deal dominance, starting with Goldwater and continuing today with the Bushes and Brownbacks and Limbaughs and Richard Burr (Helms' successor), has relied on simple racism as a rallying point. They can tell themselves that they would be a majority without inbred, backwoods racists in rural-heavy states, but the math doesn't lie. So they trot before the cameras and put dog-whistle politics into practice, praising Helms' dedication to "conservative values" to let this crucial GOP demographic know, "We know what his real message was. Wink." Where the GOP would be without constant race-baiting of rural white America (whether we call it Civil Rights, state's rights, welfare, Affirmitive Action, urban policy, "the inner cities", or any other euphemism-of-the-moment) they dare not imagine, even if they find the practice distasteful.
Helms allegedly once told President Bush, "The only thing I am running for is the Kingdom of Heaven." If there is a God, Helms failed.