The Stain

Written by Terry Canaan. Posted in Opinion, Politics

Published on July 07, 2008 with No Comments

By Terry Canaan

July 7, 2008

Over the extended holiday weekend, we learned that former North Carolina Senator Jess Helms had died. The nation was in mourning.

Well, not the entire nation, just right wingers. Turns out that those of us on the left who remember Helms remember him correctly. He was the last holdout of the old segregationist south; an unrepentant racist, a demagogue, the father of the politics of Karl Rove and Lee Atwater. The difference between those mourning and those remembering history says more about the mourners than anything. Either they don’t remember Helms correctly or they remember him just fine — and approve.

Of course, the media hasn’t been any help in telling us who Helms really was. Mainstream media outlets are calling him merely “controversial” — or worse, just “a conservative icon.” Left out of most accounts is the fact that Helms always won reelection by slim majorities — similar to Bush’s reelection — by mobilizing white racists to turn out to the polls with attack ads and fearmongering.

The real Jesse Helms isn’t being remembered.

Contrary to what you might think, this isn’t the first time that this has happened with Helms. Yes, you only die once, but that’s not the only opportunity for the media to look back on a politician’s life. When Helms announced he would retire at the end of his term, the media decided to give him the kid gloves treatment.

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR.org), 2001:

News that North Carolina’s Jesse Helms will retire from the Senate when his term is up in 2003 received polite coverage in mainstream media. USA Today (8/22/01) described Helms’ views as “unabashed and outspoken conservatism.” To the Washington Post (8/22/01), Helms is one of the Senate’s “most ardent champions of conservative causes…a man of bold colors and few pastels.” Curiously using the past tense, the Los Angeles Times observed, “he personified the unvarnished, uncompromising, attack-dog brand of conservatism.” (8/22/01)

Most of the coverage alluded to Helms’ unrepentant racism and homophobia– though few called it that. Some outlets presented his bigotry as merely accusations from political foes: “His opponents have accused him of using race to win elections.” (CBS Evening News, 8/21/01) Overall, most outlets painted Helms as a conservative whose career has merely been punctuated by controversial episodes, not as a demagogue whose career has been defined by the politics of hate and reaction.

FAIR.org listed the one exception to the rule; a piece by David Broder for the Washington Post. Broder got right to the point in the title; “Jesse Helms, White Racist.” He should’ve rerun it as Helms’ obit.

…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.

“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,” Broder wrote. In 1984, Helms continued his race-baiting politics, filibustering a bill to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday to earn him points with racists at home. 20 points down in the polls, Helms cut that number in half with his obstructionism. “Helms campaign literature sounded a drumbeat of warnings about black voter-registration drives,” we’re told. This is the truth of Jesse Helms and it’s a truth that some believe must never be spoken.

Case in point, the right wing NewsBusters, a “media watchdog” site that tracks “liberal bias” — i.e., any instance anywhere where someone doesn’t toe the Republican line. Telling the truth about Jesse Helms is verboten.

[R]everence should be crucial on the day someone that has tirelessly served this nation for thirty years passes away.

Apparently devoid of such human decency, the folks in the Netroots, within minutes of Friday’s announcement concerning the death of Jesse Helms, began publishing virulent and vulgar epithets directed at the former senator, with some actually voicing a desire to dance on his grave.

Lazy as hell, the author — Noel Sheppard — goes straight to the DailyKos, where the open platform (any member can write an article) guarantees that he’ll find exactly what he’s looking for. With a little more legwork, Sheppard could’ve found an obit by Wonkette Editor Ken Layne at Political Machine. The title says it all; “Jesse Helms: Human Garbage.”

Or, having the word “news” in their name, he could’ve bothered to find something by an actual journalist which, again, wasn’t awfully hard to find. Writing for The Nation, Richard Kim titles his obit, “Jesse Helms, American Bigot.” But if he had any stamina for investigation, Noel Sheppard would be a journalist himself. He’s too lazy to do the research, opting instead for the low-hanging fruit of DailyKos.

Then again, another reason why Sheppard went straight to Kos is because other sources were dead-on accurate. Example after example after example of Helms’ bigotry, divisiveness, and race-baiting turn up in more researched articles and that’d be pretty hard to spin away as “liberal bias.” We on the left like to say reality has a liberal bias — those on the right don’t like to bring up that unfortunate truth.

It’s much easier to be outraged that people aren’t treating the demise of Nathan Bedford Forrest — I mean, Jess Helms — with the proper respect. But it’s also the right who constantly tell us that respect is earned, that no one is entitled to anything. Jesse Helms may have served this nation in the Senate, but that doesn’t automatically mean that service was honorable. In Helms’ case, it wasn’t.

It’s not the reaction on the left that’s most telling, but on the right. Instead of trying to distance themselves from this racist throwback to the bad old days of segregationism, they practically climbed over each other to heap praise on him.

Jesse Helms was a kind, decent, and humble man and a passionate defender of what he called “the Miracle of America.” So it is fitting that this great patriot left us on the Fourth of July. He was once asked if he had any ambitions beyond the United States Senate. He replied: ‘The only thing I am running for is the Kingdom of Heaven.’ Today, Jesse Helms has finished the race, and we pray he finds comfort in the arms of the loving God he strove to serve throughout his life.
-President Bush

Bob and I are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of our longtime friend Senator Jesse Helms. We extend our heartfelt sympathies to his precious wife Dot and their family. In succeeding Jesse to represent North Carolina in the United States Senate, I knew I could never replace him, but I continue to strive each day to provide the dedicated constituent service he provided the people of our state for 30 years. As my father would say, Jesse was indeed a watchdog — for North Carolina and for the nation.
-North Carolina GOP Sen. Elizabeth Dole

Today we lost a Senator whose stature in Congress had few equals. Senator Jesse Helms was a leading voice and courageous champion for the many causes he believed in.
-Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell

Senator Helms was the truest of patriots. His passion for conservative principles and the vigor with which he pursued them was second to none. I consider Senator Helms to be a mentor and dear friend. He dedicated his life to ensuring that the America he knew and loved would remain a strong beacon of freedom in a tumultuous world. Senator Helms leaves behind a strong legacy of fighting for the freedoms that make America great, even in the face of the strongest of foes.
-North Carolina GOP Rep. Virginia Foxx

There’s more, but frankly, it’s sickening. Matthew Yglesias leaves us with one more quote, from that “truest of patriots” himself; “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.”

Remember when Trent Lott caught hell for praising Strom Thurmond? Those reactions above are pretty much the same damned thing and no one’s calling these people on it. Saying, “Yay for the standard-bearer for institutional racism!” is the same as saying, “Yay for institutional racism!” I don’t expect outright criticism from the right — even Democratic politicians didn’t to that — but effusive, bubbling praise isn’t exactly the right response either. Maybe “He kept his office clean” or “He was very nice to the congressional pages” would be appropriate. But this pretense that he was the finest man who ever strode the Earth is completely inappropriate.

It also makes you wonder — what if they really mean it? What if they, like Lott, really do pine for the days of segregation, when a good white politician could be openly racist? I don’t think it’s true across the board, but it does make you wonder. How awful would a right wing senator have to be before Republicans disowned him — even in death?

He’d have to be pretty repugnant. In praising Helms, the right embraces a racist as not only one of their own, but as a leader of their movement. Let that be Jesse Helms’ legacy for the GOP — that ugly stain smack dab in the middle of their standard.

Terry Canaan is a former political fundraiser living and writing in Wisconsin. He published the blog, “Griper Blade.”