Column: Good-Bye Jesse—And Good Riddance!

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Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in history at the University of Illinois. His dissertation addresses 20th-century rhetorical precedents of demagoguery that the New Right exploited for electoral success.

This is a sad time for bigots and other emotionally stunted yokels who loathe efforts at subsidizing school lunches for impoverished children, providing prescription coverage for the elderly, or guaranteeing civil rights. It's a sad time indeed, for as you know, one of the leading members of Congress' Joint Chiefs of Troglodytes, Jesse Helms, will be doing his drooling in senatorial retirement as of January, 2003.

Helms's career was - and we might as well get used to the past tense - a treasure chest of anthropological insight into the prehistoric mind. Charles Darwin believed that natural selection advanced fit species. He also knew the maladapted would hang on for some time before eminent extinction. Helms was Mr. Big among lingering subhumans, but now the Ghost of Evolution Past is counting the hours to his expiration date. With a little hope and prayer that Darwin was correct on all counts, Helms's devoted horde of bullies and bumpkins will soon join him. It would be most considerate of natural selection, I think, to speed up things a bit.


A first peek into Helms's Cro-Magnon world view comes from one of his many fatuous statements. In March 2000 an insecure Helms sputtered that"the radical feminists are at it again." These lunatics had asked the Senate to ratify an outrageous United Nation's proposition on the"Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women." With his manhood under fire, one assumes, Helms would have none of it. He did"not intend to be pushed around by discourteous, demanding women." If they knew their place and held proper respect for male supremacy, they would compliantly skip along to their kitchens of yesteryear. But feminists sure can be uppity, and Helms knew how to deal with uppityness. For instance, he once whistled"Dixie" while standing beside a female African-American U.S. senator. Now that's real Southern chivalry.

For greater effect, Helms added to his misogynist diatribe a sniping remark on"mandating women in combat. Boy, they are hot to trot on that." Evidently he believed that only valorous boys - and preferably white ones, you know, the capable ones -- are eligible for the desirable opportunity of being slaughtered or dismembered on the glorious field of battle. For my money, Mr. Helms, if a woman wants to take my place in bloody and inhumane combat, she can be my guest. I shall sprinkle rose petals in her path and wave the flag as she boards a transport to some wretched, war-torn nation.


Of course unveiled race baiting and fear mongering formed another part of Helms's neolithic customs. He routinely televised campaign ads in the genre of mental brutality. Most remembered is the 1990 ad showing frustrated white hands denied employment in favor of a presumably less-qualified African American. But there were equally vicious ads less remembered. One in 1996 accused black opponent Harvey Gantt -- who rose from poverty to prosperity through brains, determination, and hard work - of exploiting his skin color to attain success. It was untrue, as one might expect, but untruths never tormented Helms. He had landed the punch. To the"wouldn't-you-just-know-it" crowd, Gantt was an exposed scoundrel. More importantly, the TV spot suggested to even civil rights-inclined viewers that blacks in general are incapable of achieving what whites achieve, unless aided by"big guvment" or chicanery. Some nudging of the subconscious can never hurt.

In other ads the Helms camp charged Democrats with supporting racial quotas, which emphatically they did not, and curiously linked them with homosexuals. Helms immediately fired his media man. Finally, one asks, a moment of conscience and decency? No. Helms didn't fire him because the charges were insipid. He was just peeved that the ads weren't held till the race tightened.


Had Joseph Welch been around to again pose his famous questions -"Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" - Helms would have simply reacted with more boast and bluster. He had sold his constituents on the idea that he was his own man, couldn't be pushed around by"radical" females or pink bureaucrats, and was guided by moral passion. Piercing criticism merely buffed his image.

At his core, Helms was a throwback to late 19th- and early 20th-century Southern demagogues. He molded himself in the generic style of a"Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, the ultra-racist governor and later U.S. senator of South Carolina (1890-1918). Tillman advertised himself as the common people's voice -- a fighting politician led only by down-home personal convictions and a moral sense of proper society."Those who attempt to question my motives or accuse me of betraying my principles ... can go to hell." Such was Tillman's celebrated persona, and his followers couldn't get enough of it..

Tillman's fresh and radical rhetoric that promised to rescue financially ailing farmers never materialized as help, mostly because there really wasn't much he could do about supply and demand and international markets. Hence in the absence of progress, Tillman rightly guessed in his first reelection run that regular servings of racist oratory would be sufficient meat for most white voters. The strategy served for years as a ready-made handbook for good-old-boy politicians like Helms. (Tillman's racial bombast was extraordinarily vulgar. Once, to heighten white fears of the always-looming potential of black equality, he declared"I had rather find [one of my daughters] killed by a tiger or a bear and gather up her bones and bury them, conscious that she had died in the purity of her maidenhood, than to have her crawl to me and tell me the horrid story that she had been robbed of the jewel of her womanhood by a black fiend.")

In short, Helms's singular insight lay in aping Southern politics of the past. Promote division and hatred; place (only) genteel, Victorian women on a pedastal; and play the quintessential populist, the common people's standard-bearer.

As a modern, moralistic populist of the New Right school, Helms consistently denounced big government while having an unseemly love affair with tobacco subsidies, all manner of big-ticket defense projects, the savings and loan industry (he was once executive director of North Carolina's banking association), and other mistresses that eased the woes of the economically powerful. All along, as a 1995 article put it, his constituents saw him as"a personal friend of Jesus Christ" and"a populist defender of the little guy." Plainly, they never bothered to read his Senate record, which wreaked of schmoozing with the big boys and working against the little ones. Like the Prudential rock, Helms steadfastly voted"No" on anti-poverty bills and other bills that would aid those in true need. In doing so he helped rank North Carolina 43rd in industrial wages and 44th in infant mortality. What a capital fellow and man of the people.

Throughout his political career, Helms conned his way into the hearts of ignorant whites wanting simplistic answers. He played to their every prejudice while voting to worsen their plight and enrich the comfortable, which, of course, only served to heighten prejudices. He was dumb as a Jersey cow, but a clever fox when it came to pushing hot buttons.

For you bigots and assorted right-wingers, I know Jesse's departure is a tough break. But as you grieve, others will busy themselves in seeking a full-time nurse to wipe up Helms's venomous drool as he withers away at the Home for Old Demagogues.

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Jeff Adams - 9/6/2001

I certainly hope that the "objectivity" Mr. Carpenter shows in his article is not the objectivity he will bring to viewing and presenting history. It is all well and fine to have opinions and disagree with someone, but the pure hatred spewed here is rather small-minded.

I find it interesting that someone with such a narrow view of the world could be a doctoral candidate. I guess the old saying of "feed a monkey enough bananas and you can teach him anything" fits here. If bigotry is alive and well today, then Mr. Carpenter is the banner carrier. Wrapping himself in self rightiousness while displaying all the negative qualities he claims for Helms is rather hypocritical.

What concerns me most is not his views, but that if he is going to be working in an academic environment (what else can you do with a history degree?), he appears to lack the ability to look at things without being rather jaded in his views, which will bias his ability to interpret events honestly. What a sad state.

tim tyson - 9/6/2001

P.M. Carpenter's column on Jesse Helms must have been fun to write, but it hardly scratched the surface. It is all well and good to pat ourselves on the back for our wonderful state of enlightenment, but anyone who thinks Jesse Helms is dumb has not done his research. While he is a sort of throwback, he is also very modern and helped to reinvent American contemporary politics. Who invented direct mail fundraising? Well, Richard Viguerie, but he perfected the technique while working for Helms. And Helms definitely took obstructionism to new heights, unheard of even among in the fiefdoms of filbuster. Strom never did it on anything like the same level. And Carpenter seems to have just gotten out his little book of "Jesse's Howlers" and sought to titillate us with Jesse's best. But for a column in a history list, this is not very strong. Where did Jesse come from? Who supported him and why? Must be those bumpkins and rubes, hookworm-ridden idiots. Try again, and this time do some research. The Helms phenomenon has a history, and it is far more interesting and considerably more challenging than looking down our noses and congratulating ourselves on being so modern.