When a "colorful" celebrity has achieved some sort of sustained and nominally respectable worldly accomplishment (record sales, business success, public office), and has been around long enough to acquire the appealing vulnerability of old age, and has not been convicted of a capital crime, there’s a powerful tendency to go all warm and fuzzy on him. So it is at the moment for Jesse Helms, the senior senator from North Carolina. With his announcement, last Wednesday, that he will not seek a sixth term next year, Helms became a certified legend -- the feisty (but always courteous) conservative icon, the plain-spoken Tarheel who never feared to be politically incorrect, the paragon of traditional values who always let you know where he stood and is destined to be remembered, as president Bush put it, as "a tireless defender of our nation’s freedom and a champion of democracy abroad."
The strangest tribute came from Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and normally a levelheaded (if chronically puckish) observer. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Mead described Helms as "one of a handful of Southern statesmen who ensured the triumph of the civil rights revolution" -- and not, as you might suppose, by provoking disgust and indignation among the fair-minded with the crude racism that was his stock-in-trade (along with an "anti-Communism" that treated liberal reform and Soviet tyranny as indistinguishable). According to Mead, the decisive contribution of Jesse Helms was that "once the civil rights legislation of the 1960s was enacted" -- over Helms’ unremitting and demagogic opposition, by the way -- "he accepted the laws and obeyed them." Also, in edifying contrast to his counterparts of a century earlier, he refrained from "being directly and openly involved in the murder of black political leaders."
Talk about lowering the bar! But 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.
To be fair, the snub of the South African President probably had less to do with race per se than with foreign policy, the field in which Helms, who since 1986, has been either the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or its ranking Republican, has done his worst mischief. His vaunted anti-Communism was never based upon principled belief in democracy. His support of the apartheid regime was of a piece with his enthusiasm for any dictatorship, no matter how brutal, that could plausibly be described as right wing. (He even supported the Argentine junta in the Falklands war with Britain.) He has crippled America’s diplomatic corps, systematically starving the State Department of funds and capriciously blocking the confirmation of highly qualified ambassadorial nominees. But it is in his unrelenting hostility to international institutions that he has done his greatest and probably most lasting damage.
The gauzy story line of the past week requires Helms to have "mellowed," the main piece of evidence being his agreement, in 1999, to allow payment of some nine hundred million dollars of the $1.3 billion in back dues the United States then owed the United Nations. Never mind that it was he who had abused the rules of the Senate to hold up the payments in the first place, or that the United States was on the verge of being deeply embarrassed by losing its right to vote in the General Assembly. The real significance of the episode is that what was supposed to be legally binding has now been certified as volitional. A new "principle" -- that the solemn obligations of the United States are subject to abrogation without notice by congressional ideologues -- has become ever more entrenched. America’s U.N. bill, by the way, remains unpaid; it now amounts to $2.3 billion, a record, thanks to the machinations of such mini-Helmses as Tom DeLay, the House majority whip. Helms’s heirs now populate the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, too: the national-security apparatus of the Bush Administration is heavily salted with his former assistants. Little wonder that the Administration adds almost weekly to the long list of useful international treaties it proposes to reject, abrogate, or simply scrap. The retirement of Jesse Helms has been hailed (and mourned) as "the end of an era." If only that were true.
-- Hendrik Hertzberg, editorial in The New Yorker