Dead on the Fourth of July

Jesse Helms, 1921-2008


The first time I met Jesse Helms was in 1981. My fifth grade class had risen early, boarded a bus in North Carolina, and taken a five-hour trek to Washington, where we tried to pack a week's worth of civic tourism into a single day. Zipping through the U.S. Senate, we filed in for a photograph with our state's senior senator.

"So these children are from Raleigh?" Helms said to a staffer.

"No," came the reply. "Chapel Hill."

A hint of a scowl crossed the Republican legislator's face. Or maybe it just seemed that way to me, knowing as I did that he hated my hometown and the liberal-leaning university it contained. When the state was mulling a plan to build a zoo, Helms had cracked that it should just put a fence around Chapel Hill.

That would not be an appropriate comment for this occasion, so our host changed the subject. His eyes scanned the crowd of kids, and apparently they fell on my nametag. Before I understood what was happening, he was shaking my hand. "My name's Jesse, too," he drawled. "Maybe we're related!" I stood there dumbly, surprised and paralyzed; before I knew it, my namesake was gone and we were marching to the next stop on the tour.

One of the class chaperones fell into step beside me. "Thanks," he said, "for not spitting in his face." I got the impression from his tone that a part of him would have liked it if I had spat at the senator. If Jesse Helms hated Chapel Hill, then virtually everyone I knew from Chapel Hill hated Helms right back.

By the '90s that contempt had spread far beyond our city and state. If you asked the average liberal about Helms in 1995, there were two things he was likely to tell you: that the senator was a racist and that the senator was a censor. The evidence for the first charge, if you cared to ask, would be a TV ad he ran in his 1990 campaign, in which a white man crumples a job application after a racial quota keeps him from finding work. The evidence for the second charge would be Helms' crusade against the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal program that funded material he considered obscene.

In other words, the typical Helms-bashers were actually prettifying the picture. The man was a Jim Crow nostalgist who wanted to obliterate the line between church and state, and they were whining about his run-of-the-mill conservative stances on affirmative action and Robert Mapplethorpe. You'd think Helms was just another Republican, notable only for his accent and his ties to the tobacco industry. But he was much more than that. You needn't favor racial preferences or federal art subsidies to find Jesse Helms objectionable.

Helms was, almost literally, a child of the segregationist order. His father was a cop in Monroe, North Carolina; in his recent book Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism, the historian William Link writes that the senior Helms "was expected to maintain the racial hierarchy through intimidation and, if necessary, brute force." (Link quotes a black Monroe woman who said the officer used "his power to the fullest, in the wrong way.") The constable's son came to prominence as a defender of that racist regime, but he made those old arguments in a new medium, reading virulent editorials on WRAL-TV in the '60s. "Are civil rights only for Negroes?" he said in one 1963 broadcast. "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 had their purses snatched last year by Negro hoodlums may understandably insist that their right to walk the street unmolested was violated."

In the 1950s, an alliance emerged between free-marketeers and segregationists. It was not an inevitable union: Jim Crow laws were, in addition to all their other injustices, an intrusive array of restrictions on freedom of contract and freedom of commerce. But the alternatives suggested by the civil rights movement often restrained those freedoms from the other direction, opening space for a coalition that would have seemed much stranger a generation earlier. Thus, in 1964, the Deep South voted for Barry Goldwater, a man who had taken the lead in desegregating his family's department store, the Arizona Air National Guard, and the Phoenix public schools years before the law required any of those institutions to be integrated. He had also voted for federal civil rights bills in 1957 and 1960. But he shared the segregationists' hostility to two provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and that mutual interest allowed conservative activists to create a political realignment.

If Goldwater relied on the votes of racists he despised, then Helms was the other side of the alliance: a segregationist who could speak the language of liberty but never really adopted freedom as a principle. Helms realized early on that it looked better to position yourself as a foe of big government than as a defender of state-created privileges, so he preferred to talk about the new powers the federal government was claiming, not the old powers the state government had exercised for decades. In other words, he learned to talk like Goldwater. But there's little doubt that his sympathies lay with the larger system of legally enforced white supremacy. Helms maintained that the South had no racial problems until the feds "manufactured" them; according to Link, he established quiet ties to the White Citizens' Councils and similar groups.

Helms' anti-statist rhetoric wasn't entirely a pose. As a Raleigh city councilman in the '50s, for example, he led a lonely fight against the federal urban renewal program. But anyone tempted to believe the right-wing direct-mail king Richard Viguerie's eulogy for the senator—sample quote: "It's the free market views, policies, and leadership of President Reagan, Jesse Helms, and Milton Friedman that have led the world to experience the greatest movement out of poverty in history"—should review Helms' record in office. As far as economic policy was concerned, his chief concerns were preserving and extending the trade barriers that protected North Carolina's textile industry and the subsidies that supported North Carolina's tobacco farms.

In social policy, Helms favored anti-porn statutes, "voluntary" school prayer, and—"in the best interest of public health"—sodomy laws. In international affairs, he pushed for U.S. aid to some of the most repellent figures on the world stage, from the Salvadoran death-squad organizer Roberto D'Aubuisson to the Mozambican terror group RENAMO. After the Cold War ended, some critics of American foreign policy hoped that Helms' hatred of the United Nations and nonmilitary foreign aid would transform him into an old-fashioned isolationist who eschewed foreign entanglements. That isn't how it worked out. Over the course of the decade, Helms sponsored bills to tighten the embargo against Cuba and to send $100 million in military aid to Bosnia. After some early dithering, he also came out for expanding NATO into Eastern Europe. By the end of his career, he couldn't even hold the line against the foreign aid he loved to criticize: Under the influence of his buddy Bono, Helms put his weight behind a $200 million assistance package for Africa.

In other words, the man was no more committed to limited government abroad than he was committed to it at home. But he maintained his reputation as a skinflint isolationist. And why not? A good politician knows how to lie, and Helms was an expert politician.

1983: another school, another field trip to Washington, another audience with the man who shares my name. Now a smartassed seventh grader, I set a goal for myself. Tired of receiving mass-produced deceptions via the newspapers and television, I would get a legislator to lie to me personally. I approached the senator. "Excuse me, Mr. Helms," I said in a deferential tone. "My name is Jesse Walker. I don't know if you remember me, but we met a couple years ago on another class trip."

The senator took the bait: "Why, of course I remember you, Jesse." He smiled warmly, looked me straight in the eye, spoke in a confidential tone, and gave me the heartiest handshake I had ever encountered.

It should have been a private moment of triumph. Instead it taught me what a born politician can do. For a second, I forgot the whole plan and believed him.

Jesse Walker is reason's managing editor.