Senator Jesse Helms will not seek a sixth term in the U.S. Senate, a decision that will end the North Carolina Republican’s 30 year reign at the conclusion of the current term in 2002. The announcement has sparked a number of reflective tributes to the venerable and controversial Helms, but after sifting through all of the political spin and phony sentimentalism, the question that remains is, “What is the true meaning of Jesse Helms’ legacy?”
Helms has become colloquially referred to as “Senator No” for his refusal to back almost all forms of government expansion and his penchant for impeding the progress of presidents, including those of his own party. To some, his fierce and unblinking hatred of communism made him a Cold War hero.
Helms has long been applauded for his willingness to stick by his convictions in the face of unpopularity and media scrutiny, but the sad fact is that for too many of these beliefs have been anti-humanitarian and therefore un-American.
Like many prominent southern politicians of his era, Helms began his career as a Democrat, but switched his party allegiance with the passing of the Democratically backed Civil Rights Act of 1964. He has constantly and consistently fought against all civil rights legislation and anti-discrimination laws. His insensitivity about social and cultural dilemma is clearly evident in his own words.
During his 1990 bid for re-election, Helms ran an ad about affirmative action that portrayed a white man tearing up a letter and a voice in the background stating, “You were the best qualified for the job, but they had to give it to a minority.”
When asked about laws on workplace discrimination for homosexuals, Helms plainly said, “If the homosexuals would stop doing what they are doing, an end would be put to all future cases of AIDS.”
While the AIDS virus and affirmative action are certainly debatable issues, Helms inflammatory speech and seeming eagerness towards race baiting is separatist and inexcusable.
Helms is often praised for his love and compassion for people, but he has no real comprehension of the word compassion. He has exhibited compassion toward a select few, and levied hatred and bigotry against many others. The subjectivity of Helms’ “compassion” is vicious and ignorant in a supposedly democratic society. To praise this man, even at his departure, for political or diplomatic reasons, serves only to perpetuate the wrong he has done and excuse the tension that he created.
Helms is credited as the leader of the Republican Revolution in the south, but his name will forever be synonymous with such anti-progress figures as George Wallace, Bill Connor, and Strom Thurmond. Helms is a traditional representative of the values of the “Old South,” values that should have been abandoned long ago.