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Jesse Helms, White Racist
By David S. Broder
Wednesday, August 29, 2001; Washington Post, Page A21
Those who believe that the "liberal press" always has its knives sharpened for Republicans and conservatives must have been flummoxed by the coverage of Sen. Jesse Helms's announcement last week that he will not run for reelection next year in North Carolina. The reporting on his retirement was circumspect to the point of pussyfooting.
On the day his decision became known, the New York Times described him as "a conservative stalwart for nearly 30 years," the Boston Globe as "an unyielding icon of conservatives and an archenemy of liberals." The Washington Post identified Helms as "one of the most powerful conservatives on Capitol Hill for three decades."
Those were accurate descriptions. But they skirted the point. There are plenty of powerful conservatives in government. A few, such as Don Rumsfeld and Henry Hyde, have been around as long as Helms and have their own significant roles in 20th century political history. What really sets Jesse Helms apart is that he is the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country -- a title that one hopes will now be permanently retired. A few editorials and columns came close to saying that. But the squeamishness of much of the press in characterizing Helms for what he is suggests an unwillingness to confront the reality of race in our national life.
My own paper, The Washington Post, carried three stories about Helms's departure. In their 54 paragraphs, exactly two -- the 10th paragraph of one story and the last paragraph of another -- alluded to the subject of race.
Let me be clear. Helms has fought many battles in his career, and whether you agreed with him or not on small issues such as the funding of the arts or large ones such as Cuba, China, the Panama Canal and the United Nations, you had to respect his right as an elected and reelected senator to fight for his beliefs.
Even if you thought, as I did, that he was petty and vindictive in using his power as a committee chairman to block the appointment of former Massachusetts governor William Weld as ambassador to Mexico and, just this year, to force concessions from President Bush on textile imports before the top Treasury officials could be confirmed, you had to admit that other senators also have used their leverage to advance personal political agendas.
What is unique about Helms -- and from my viewpoint, unforgivable -- is his willingness to pick at the scab of the great wound of American history, the legacy of slavery and segregation, and to inflame racial resentment against African Americans.
Many of the accounts of Helms's retirement linked him with another prospective retiree, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Both these Senate veterans switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party when the Democrats began pressing for civil rights legislation in the 1960s. But there is a great difference between them. Thurmond, who holds the record for the longest anti-civil rights filibuster, accepted change. For three decades he has treated African Americans and black institutions as respectfully as he treats all his other constituents.
To the best of my knowledge, Helms has never done what the late George Wallace did well before his death -- recant and apologize for his use of racial issues. And that use was blatant.
In 1984, when Helms faced his toughest opponent in Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, the late Bill Peterson, one of the most evenhanded reporters I have ever known, summed up what "some said was the meanest Senate campaign in history."
"Racial epithets and standing in school doors are no longer fashionable," Peterson wrote, "but 1984 proved that the ugly politics of race are alive and well. Helms is their master."
A year before the election, when public polls showed Helms trailing by 20 points, he launched a Senate filibuster against the bill making the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday. Thurmond and the Senate majority were on the other side, but the next poll showed Helms had halved his deficit.
All year, Peterson reported, "Helms campaign literature sounded a drumbeat of warnings about black voter-registration drives. . . . On election eve, he accused Hunt of being supported by 'homosexuals, the labor union bosses and the crooks' and said he feared a large 'bloc vote.' What did he mean? 'The black vote,' Helms said." He won, 52 percent to 48 percent.
In 1990, locked in a tight race with an African American Democrat, former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt, Helms aired a final-week TV ad that showed a pair of white hands crumpling a rejection letter, while an announcer said, "You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota." Once again, he pulled through.
That is not a history to be sanitized.