Jesse Helms’ death on July 4 was read by many as the last gasp of a no longer breed of conservatism–the explicit defense of Jim Crow, the escalation of homophobic rhetoric to murderous levels, the hard-edge of red-baiting imperialism. But Helms was in many ways the epitome of the New Right, and his significance should not be dismissed as merely colorful commentary. I asked my friend, Lisa Duggan, professor of American Studies at NYU, how she’d characterize Helms’ legacy. She’s at work on a political biography of Helms. Here are her thoughts:
Jesse Helms, American Bigot
by Lisa Duggan
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 4th of July.
Helms would have appreciated the symbolism, confirming the his own mythic identity as a Proud American, but Helms’ 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."
"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’ 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.