Jesse Helms, American Bigot

Jesse Helms, American Bigot

In death it’s easy to dismiss Jesse Helms as a colorful buffoon or a relic of the bad old days of segregation and sexism, but that doesn’t do his bigotry justice.

Facebook
Twitter
Email
Flipboard
Pocket

Did he plan it? Did he struggle on life support until after the midnight hour, timing his last breath? Or had he been dead for days, his associates keeping the body on ice for the holiday announcement? Jesse Helms, dead on the Fourth of July.

Helms would have appreciated the symbolism, confirming his own mythic identity as a Proud American, but Helms’s other legacy as a big fat bigot is well established. From his racist tirades on the radio and television in North Carolina during the 1950s and ’60s to his vicious homophobic rants of the 1980s and 90s, he left a highly quotable record of hate.

On the civil rights movement: ” ‘Candy’ is hardly the word for either the topless swimsuit or the Civil Rights Bill. In our judgment, neither has a place in America–unless we have completely lost our sense of morality.”

and

“The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that’s thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic, and interfere with other men’s rights.”

On sexual politics and public health: “The government should spend less money on people with AIDS because they got sick as a result of deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct.”

In death it’s easy to dismiss Jesse Helms as a colorful buffoon or a relic of the bad old days of segregation and sexism, but that doesn’t do Helms’s bigotry justice.

Jesse Helms was an important bigot. He didn’t just fume and huff. He used the language of cultural politics–called “morality” or “values” or just “freedom”–to shrink the state, reduce the social wage, enhance the interests of ruthless corporate profit mongering and promote US military interventions around the world. He’s the poster boy for how cultural politics works, not as an arena separated from the “real” political economy but as the site of the language and emotion through which people live politics and economics everyday.

Helms began his political career in North Carolina as a reporter, with ties to the banking and tobacco industries. As a “newsman” on WRAL radio and television in Raleigh, North Carolina, he didn’t just hammer opponents with red-baiting accusations like every other demagogue, he laced his commentaries on radio and television with the kind of creative rhetorical jihads against the New Deal and the civil rights movement that later gave the Rovian Republican Party its bad name. But he didn’t rest on his laurels as a rhetorician. He ran for Congress, built a record-breaking Senate campaign war chest, and went on to become a central architect of the New Right network of corporations, foundations and committees.

Malicious rhetorician and image maker, major fundraiser and creator of the modern big-money electoral campaign, networked right-wing institution and movement builder–Jesse Helms was so much more than just another bigot. He was a stalwart supporter of anti-union policies, and active in US foreign policy debates. In his career on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he pursued US imperial policies both overt and covert. He supported inequality at home and violence abroad and gave it all the name Morality. He wasn’t just that annoying Senator No, tying up the Congress and stalling judicial nominations and all that. He both reflected and shaped, and helped legitimate and enshrine, a metastasizing array of virulent anti-democratic forces in American politics in the post World War II period.

To paraphrase Gore Vidal’s obituary for William F.Buckley, RIP JH–in hell.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy
x