The Toxic Legacy of Jesse Helms

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The Guardian/UK

The Toxic Legacy of Jesse Helms

His notorious race-baiting and Red-bashing political campaigns molded the modern Republican party

Cliff Schecter

It is almost fitting that Senator Jesse Helms - longtime US Senator from North Carolina, onetime right-wing political commentator and a constant conservative voice on both domestic and foreign policy issues in American politics for the past half decade - passed away during an election year that may indeed see the demise of the conservative coalition that he was a key player in building.

Ronald Reagan gets the monuments. Richard Nixon is credited with the "Southern strategy". But no single politician - save perhaps Strom Thurmond - embodied the manipulation of race, religion and the overarching set of issues known simply as "family values" to bring the once-solid Democratic South into the GOP fold.

Helms, using resentments as old as the South and as new as the racial tension seething in major American cities in the 1960s, built a coalition of social and foreign policy conservatives in service of the economic agenda completely at odds with the majority of those who ended up voting for him and his colleagues. The foot soldiers in this revolution were rallied to the cause based on a mutual hatred for liberals, "integrationists", homosexuals and most often the easy to apply, one-size-fits-all moniker of "Communist".

Jesse Alexander Helms was born in Monroe, North Carolina, the son of a police chief. While he never did receive a university degree, he discovered he had a talent for anti-establishment political agitation, which he began to utilize as a right-wing commentator for radio and television stations in Raleigh, North Carolina. There he fine-tuned his pitch, calling civil-rights supporters Communists, and otherwise earning himself a place in the race-baiting hall of fame.

Helms possessed tobacco and banking connections (he was the executive director of the North Carolina bankers' association from 1953-1960), and understood the power of an emerging array of New Right organisations that relied upon corporate money and a message decrying social decay at home and Communism abroad. He tapped into both, along with the newer technology of targeted mail, to build a formidable war chest that allowed him to squeak by in a number of divisive campaigns, to win and hold onto his senate seat while never receiving more than 54.5% of the vote.

To pick one of many infamous examples of the Helms campaign method, in his 1990 Senate election Helms ran an ad blaming his African-American opponent, Charlotte city mayor Harvey Gantt, for supporting "racial quotas" which cost whites jobs while giving them to a "less qualified minority".

His overall impact on American politics cannot be overstated. In 1976, when after the former California governor Ronald Reagan had been defeated in a number of primaries by incumbent President Gerald Ford, Helms resurrected Reagan's career by helping engineer a win for Reagan in the North Carolina primary. Ford ultimately received the GOP nomination that year - but when he lost in the general election Reagan became the party's heir apparent.

Legislatively, Helms unsuccessfully filibustered the enactment of a Martin Luther King memorial holiday, because of King's supposed "Communist ties". He fought tooth and nail against federal financing of Aids research and treatment, infamously uttering: "There is not one single case of Aids in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy." As a member of the Senate's foreign relations committee, he fought against the US paying its financial dues to the UN. These and many other acts of legislative obstruction earned him the sobriquet "Senator No."

Jesse Helms may be gone. But if you follow politics, he cannot be forgotten. For every time Republicans win a state in a presidential election by placing a gay marriage ban on the ballot. Every time you hear a member or associate of the McCain campaign question Barack Obama's patriotism. Every time Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConell sets a new record for obstruction by filibustering another bill. The presence of Jesse Alexander Helms on the American political stage can still be felt.

Cliff Schecter is an online producer for Brave New Films and a national commentator for Air America radio.  He is the author of The Real McCain: Why Conservatives Don't Trust Him And Why Independents Shouldn't.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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