Wednesday, October 18, 2006

October 18

screen_4433b4a753f1dRace-baiter, homophobe, culture war cretin and "new world order" paranoiac Jesse Helms was belched from the void on 18 October 1921, a birth that spoiled an otherwise glorious day on which the patent for the first electric bread toaster was issued.

After stints as a journalist, political campaign adviser and banker in Raleigh, North Carolina, Helms -- like so many other racially conservative whites -- switched his affiliation to the Republican Party, arriving somewhat late to a nationwide political realignment that had begun in opposition to the civil rights gains of the early 1960s. After the reactionary populist George Wallace deprived his own Democratic Party of victory by running as an independent and winning four Southern states in 1968, Richard Nixon was determined to disintegrate the Democratic "Solid South" by appealing to white hostility toward school desegregation and Lyndon Johnson’s social welfare programs. Jesse Helms was a perfect candidate for the new Republican Party. As a television commentator, he had complained regularly about "Negro hoodlums" and the communist "agitators" who led the civil rights movement. Aided in 1972 by Nixon’s "Southern Strategy," Helms won the US Senate seat vacated by the retiring Senator B. Everett Jordan, who had served since 1958. Running against Rep. Nick Galifianakis, Helms described his Democratic opponent as an atheist and a communist while claiming -- in what many perceived to be a xenophobic slur -- that Galifianakis was not, like Helms, "One of Us."

From 1972 until his retirement 30 years later on the eve of the latest war in Iraq, Helms proved to be one of the most divisive figures in Congressional history. On matters of race he was particularly intractable. Defenders of Helms often point out that the senator hired two black staffers, Claude Allen and James Meredith, before it was "fashionable" to do so. However "unfashionable" Helms' hiring decisions may have been in these two instances, he was exceedingly "fashionable" to white North Carolinians who appreciated his numerous votes against civil rights legislation and his stout opposition to honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., with a federal holiday. He occasionally referred to the University of North Carolina as the "University of Negroes and Communists," and he claimed on more than one occasion that civil rights marches did nothing but "clog the streets and interfere with other men’s rights."

Eternal friend of the disaffected white voter, Helms won re-election in 1990 and 1996 against Harvey Gantt, an African American who had previously served as mayor of Charlotte. Fearing a loss to the popular Gantt, Helms' 1990 campaign openly appealed to white hostility toward affirmative action "quotas," producing a notorious television spot depicting a pair of morose white hands holding a job rejection notice. More insidiously, supporters of Helms distributed letters across the state to black voters warning them (falsely) of potential criminal penalties if they had not reported changes of address on their voter registration forms. Voter suppression tactics such as these undoubtedly helped Helms win the last two elections of his career by narrow majorities.

Helms' effect on foreign policy was baleful. Warming a chair on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the cartoonishly anti-Communist Helms offered full-throated support during his career for South Africa’s apartheid system, the notorious UNITA guerilla movement in Angola, death squads in El Salvador, and dictatorships across the Americas. Discerning the vanguard of the dreaded One World Government, Helms spitefully blocked the payment of back dues owed by the United States to the United Nations.

On 24 September 2001, Helms told CNN that an attack on Iraq was "right close" to happening in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks less than two weeks before. Helms, who had spent a good bit of time with administration officials in a secure underground room at the Capitol, observed that strikes against Saddam Hussein would not take place "until we are ready for it to happen because if we go in there with the wrong kind of preparation, that would be another disaster."

A few months later, Helms announced his intent to retire from the Senate. Earlier this year, Helms' wife announced that he has been suffering from vascular dementia for several years; he spends his time now in a semi-lucid haze, incapable of reflecting on the merits and demerits of his own life.