Jesse Helms's Other Kind of Bigotry


Jesse Walker's column today said much of what needed to be said about the late Jesse Helms. I've been frustrated, though, that so much post-mortem discussion of Helms has honed in on his racial hang-ups and the 1990 "Hands" ad, and so little has focused on his bilous homophobia. The dirtiest Helms campaign, after all, was not the 1990 campaign against Harvey Gantt. It was his 1984 comeback victory against then-Gov. Jim Hunt.

Before the campaign began, Helms trailed Hunt by more than 20 points in the polls. Hunt's favorable ratings were in the 70s; Helms's were in the 40s. The Helms strategy was to drive down Hunt's numbers by morphing him from a good ol' boy into a tool of black radicals and gays, and possibly a closeted, "prissy" gay man himself. The attacks on black voters made the latter anti-Gantt stuff look genteel. From William Link's 2008 bio Righteous Warrior:

In their ads, the Helms campaign found the "darkest, most threatening pictures of [Jesse] Jackson in order to demonize him politically. Hunt, the ads suggested, was leading a massive drive on the part of African Americans to seek political power. In a radio ad, civil rights leader Julian Bond was described as the head of a fictitious "Black Pac" and a Hunt supporter.

The anti-gay angle of the campaign was meaner still. Let's remember what "gay rights" meant in 1984. Gay marriage wasn't on the table, nor was gay adoption, or anything you could designate as "special rights." Helms favored legislation that criminalized gay sex. He attempted to override a 1981 Washington, D.C. law that legalized it. This was what Helms was attacking when he cudgled Jim Hunt, repeatedly, for taking money from gay groups. The Helms campaign bought blocks of ads in a local tabloid called The Landmark, funding a steady campaign of claims that Hunt had made common cause with the "faggots, perverts, sexual deviates of this nation." Still, too subtle. The Landmark hit paydirt when it bolstered a whisper campaign in the state about Hunt's own sexuality. From Link, again:

In an article written by editor Bob Windsor entitled "Jim Hunt is Sissy, Prissy, Girlish and Effeminate," the publication made the outrageous claim that Hunt, while a student at N.C. State, had a "pretty young boy" as a lover… Windsor had merely "printed rumors," he said, and admitted that he could not verify whether the charges that Hunt was gay were the "truth or factual in any way." Windsor compared the story to Hunt's unsubstantiated assertions about El Salvador that had labeled Jesse Helms "a murderer by proxy." "I never accused Hunt of being a fag," he said.

I can understand the argument for the "Hands" ad: Gantt, after all, had benefitted from racial preferences on a mid-80s business deal. I'd love to hear the conservative or libertarian case for letting your political foe be smeared as a "fag." (And it's not like this type of smear stopped in 1984.)