The bitter legacy of Jesse Helms

There's a reason why so many Americans can't feel charitable about the passing of the virulent warrior of the Right.

Published July 7, 2008 8:23PM (EDT)

Former Sen. Jesse Helms died early last Friday, having pretty much disappeared from public view after his retirement in 2003. But the debate over his legacy rages on today. In case you’re just tuning in, Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings has a good summary of both progressive and conservative reactions to Helms’ death, along with an extensive list of inflammatory quotes from ol’ Jesse that helps explain why few non-conservatives are following the usual protocol of speaking no ill of the recently expired.

As it happens, I wrote a review of a new biography of Helms by historian William A. Link back in March, and so had my own unfriendly thoughts about the Helms legacy already on record. My conclusion was that it was hard to identify any corrosive development on the political Right over the last few decades that was not pioneered and then exemplified by Helms. He was “the living connection between the racial politics of the Old South and the religion-based cultural politics of the New Right,” and also between the isolationist Old Right and the militarist Cheney Right on foreign policy issues.

Some of the conservative obituaries of Helms coming out today try to treat his segregationist views as a sort of irrelevant pre-history. Here are the Editors of National Review:

One of the things he was against in the 1960s was, alas, civil rights. His defense of segregation was of course deeply misguided. But is it fair for this error to have been placed in the first sentence of the New York Times’s obituary of him? Certainly liberals have forgiven the pasts of other segregationists, from Sam Ervin to William Fulbright.

The problem with that argument, of course, is that unlike Ervin and Fulbright, and even Strom Thurmond, Helms never regretted his stand for segregation, viewing it more as a tactical defeat in a longer war against unruly and inferior African-Americans (whom he famously referred to as “Freds”). His eternal and often scurrilous efforts to impugn the memory of Martin Luther King and other civil rights figures made “forgiving” his past views rather beside the point.

Even when Helms was still in the Senate, a lot of people pointed to his late-life alliance with Bono to support appropriations to fight AIDS in Africa as reflecting a “mellowing” of Helm’s virulent attitude towards sufferers from that disease and towards people with dark skins. While I’d never rule out the possibility of redemption (even for a man whose Christianity seemed so, well, unchristian), there’s not much evidence that Helms ever extended his sympathies to gay people, those “perverts” whose “disgusting” behavior he blamed for AIDS, or to those distant cousins of his African beneficiaries who happened to be his fellow-citizens.

I could go on, but won’t; there are plenty of other people to read on this subject if you are interested. Suffice it to say that Jesse Helms in life richly earned, nay demanded, the controversy that makes his passing an event that strains civility for so many Americans.

By Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is the managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and an online columnist for The New Republic.

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