Clippings: N.C. Senator provided the template

The controversy now about the North Carolina law denying human rights for transsexuals reminds me of a Tar Heel politician of a generation ago who, quite successfully, advocated for laws and policies designed to restrict the rights of a vast number of human beings and even deny their humanity. I’m sure there are a lot of readers who remember, and shudder at hearing, the name Jesse Helms.
In a political season marred by a potent combination of money and fear mongering, in which a successful candidate has made a fine art of innuendo, character assassination and diversion, I can’t help but think that maybe we’ve watched this TV show before.
Many, many Americans considered Jesse Helms an A No. 1 creep when he represented North Carolina in the U.S. Senate from 1973 to 2003. To be fair, many North Carolinians detested him, too; I don’t think he ever won an election with much more than 55 percent of the vote. He was a controversial, polarizing figure. He was a racist redneck demagogue who spewed malicious, bigoted rhetoric cloaked in knee-jerk conservative financial doctrine and idealized nostalgia. He wasn’t terribly well-liked by other Republicans and was known as “Senator No.” But he raised a lot of money for the GOP through clever use of the media, which bought him a degree of acceptance among the Republican mainstream.
What made Jesse Helms a popular guy among his voters? He spoke his mind even if what he had to say was politically incorrect. He started his political career in the 1950s as a radio talk show host who must have been on par with Rush Limbaugh for outrageous invective. In the 1960s, Helms supported apartheid. Old-timers remember how, during the civil rights movement, Helms broadcast anti-integration commentaries on radio and TV. He supported a U.S. Senate candidate who won election in part by appealing to white voters with claims that his opponent was in favor of mingling of the races (to be fair, the winning candidate said someone else was behind the race-baiting advertising, Helms demurely said it wasn’t him). Whether Helms had a hand in the despicable campaigning or not, he certainly learned how to use racial fears as a wedge to win elections.
Who can forget his 1990 campaign when, trailing in the polls to a black professional two weeks before Election Day, Helms ran a TV spot that showed two white hands crumpling up a rejection letter while the narrator said, “You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority.” The tide turned, and Helms won with 53 percent of the vote.
He didn’t change once he got into office. Helms filibustered the legislation creating the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday for 16 days and called the Civil Rights Act “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress.”
Here are some dandy one-liners that Helms used to wow his people:
“I’m so old-fashioned I believe in horsewhipping.”
“All Latins are volatile people. Hence, I was not surprised at the volatile reaction.”
“The New York Times and Washington Post are both infested with homosexuals themselves. Just about every person down there is a homosexual or lesbian.”
Helms described the University of North Carolina, known as UNC, as “the University of Negroes and Communists.”
When such charm failed, Helms turned to bullying. He once sang “Dixie” to a black senator stuck in an elevator with him; he said it was a joke. In 1994, Helms said that President “Clinton better watch out if he comes down here. He’d better have a bodyguard.” The next day he apologized.
One of Helms’s defining characteristics was his determination to stand by his friends — people like right wing dictators Augusto Pinochet of Chile and Roberto D’Aubuisson of El Salvador. A news report 20 years ago said that Helms responded to evidence that D’Aubuisson ordered death squads to murder civilians, with his conviction that “D’Aubuisson is a free enterprise man and deeply religious.” Well, I guess that makes it all right.
And he wasn’t a well-informed man. Helms once introduced Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto as prime minister of India. Reminder: Helms was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and should have known that Pakistan and India were at each other’s throats. Or maybe he did know.
It’s hard to know what to make of his 1991 comment that he had served with nearly 250 U.S. senators during his tenure in Washington and “None — none — have been more capable than Dan Quayle.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, the erstwhile presidential candidate, has lavishly praised Helms for his outspokenness and candor. At one conservative gathering he reportedly said of Helms, “The willingness to say all those crazy things is a rare, rare characteristic in this town, and you know what? It’s every bit as true now as it was then. We need a hundred more like Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate.” It’s kind of funny; Cruz himself has been known to say a crazy thing or two. But maybe he wasn’t crazy enough, or maybe he was the wrong kind of crazy. Or maybe he just didn’t have enough money to make his craziness respectable to enough Republican primary voters.
But there is another guy who, like Helms, is known for his political incorrectness; who says things without knowing or even caring about the facts; who appeals to white, male Americans’ baser instincts; who knows how to use the media — particularly the electronic media — to his advantage; who has bought himself — literally bought, with money — respectability. Thank god Jesse Helms isn’t around to foul our public discourse and bring out the beast in his fellow human beings. Let’s turn off the TV and work to ensure that we never see his like in high public office again.

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