Saturday, July 5, 2008

July 5, 2008

Jesse Helms was against things. One of his nicknames was "Senator No." He was against federal support for the arts and gin control and Fidel Castro and turning the Panama Canal over to Panama and...well, it's a long list.

But the most remembered thing about him probably is that he was a vocal, convinced racist. When he announced his retirement from the Senate, Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote of him as "the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country," which struck most who knew him as about right

He was also a very effective politician, good at raising money, tough to oppose. James Hunt, a popular North Carolina governor who ran unsuccessfully against Helms in 1984 said, "He ran negative ads against me for 20 months." They worked. One was famous--a white man's hand, wearing a wedding band, crumpling a rejection letter while the announcer says, "You needed that job. And you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority."

He had no use for national reporters. When he campaigned in North Carolina, his office wouldn't give us his schedule. We had to phone local stations, local newspapers, to find out where he'd be. But his supporters loved him.

There have been other racists in politics, of course. When Alabama's George Wallace lost an early try for office, he's supposed to have vowed, "I will never be out-niggered again." That's ugly, of course, but it's a statement of tactics, not conviction. When the times changed, when the civil rights bills became law, Governor Wallace did favors for black mayors just as he had for white ones in years past. Times changed; Wallace changed. Jesse Helms did not.

He was truly one of a kind. That's good thing, I think.

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