Efforts by political pundits to characterize Sen. Jesse Helms' retirement as marking the end of a long, distinctively Southern conservative tradition in the U.S. Senate tell only part of the North Carolinian's story.
Helms may not be to the right of Attila the Hun, but he could probably teach Attila a few things about total and merciless destruction of one's enemies. He received his baptism in slash-and-burn, shoot-the-wounded political tactics in 1950 during what still ranks as one of the meanest political campaigns in Southern history. Ostensibly an objective radio reporter covering Willis Smith's effort to unseat moderate Sen. Frank P. Graham, Helms was actually smack in the middle of the race-and Red-baiting, photograph-doctoring smear campaign that sent Smith to Washington with Helms in tow as his administrative assistant.
Some years after returning to Raleigh, N.C., Helms began a regular commentary on WRAL-TV, a forum he used to lash out at civil rights activism as the fulfillment of Karl Marx's dream and launch what would become a career-long crusade against the "liberal" bias of the "major media." Another favorite punching bag was the University of North Carolina, which Helms depicted as an academic Sodom where faculty preached and students practiced free love 24/7, taking occasional breathers to read "Das Kapital."
During these years, Helms was playing essentially the same tune as Sens. John Stennis and James Eastland of Mississippi, Richard Russell and Herman E. Talmadge of Georgia, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who also has announced his retirement, and other members of the Senate's infamously racist and reactionary Dixieland band. Nervously watching the steady exodus from the Democratic Party of Southern whites angered by the civil rights initiatives of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Thurmond, in 1964, became the first high-profile Southern politician to switch his allegiance to the once hated and reviled GOP. In reality, however, Thurmond and his colleagues had long given little more than lip service to Democratic Party principles, either in their support for the party's presidential tickets or in their own voting records on many issues favored by the party. Though he was a self-described Democrat, when Helms decided to join Strom in the Republican ranks in 1970, he had never once voted for a Democratic presidential ticket.
By the time Helms announced his candidacy for the Senate in 1972, Thurmond had already proved that white Southerners would vote for an out-of-the-Democratic-closet Republican as long as they heard the same conservative, racially tinged rhetoric they had heard when their political champion was calling himself a Democrat. No problem for Helms.
The situation was a little different for his ideological kindred spirits who could not bring themselves to switch parties. The Voting Rights Act almost instantly empowered black Southerners, without whom many Democrats had no realistic chance of winning any election worth speaking of. Hence, Talmadge and, to a lesser extent, Stennis and Eastland chose, primarily as a matter of political expediency, not only to acknowledge, but also to assist black voters. Even Strom, who had little chance of gaining much support from African Americans, cultivated them to retain political respectability.
In contrast, Helms, ideologically and culturally conservative to the bone, refused to moderate his views purely for political reasons. With his unfailing instinct for polarization, he sought to use Democratic dependence on black votes to solidify white support for him. His 1990 campaign against African American Harvey Gantt featured an ad showing white hands tearing up a termination notice issued by an employer under pressure to meet a minority-hiring quota.
There is little doubt that Helms' aggressive "I'm-right-you're-wrong-that-settles it" brand of political absolutism was music to the ears of a great many unreconstructed whites in North Carolina and across the South. When they watched old Jesse slandering the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. or kicking the butts of northern liberals, feminists, gays and black activists like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, these Southerners could almost imagine themselves at Gettysburg, succeeding where Confederate Gen. George Pickett had failed. Helms' ideology and temperament also appealed to right-wing zealots outside the South, whose campaign contributions enabled him to spend nearly $15 million on his last campaign and nearly $18 million on the one before that. For all the big bucks behind him, however, Helms never persuaded more than 55% of the Tarheel electorate to vote for him.
Many white Southerners who deserted the Democratic Party in the 1960s and 1970s insisted they had not left their party so much as their party had left them. Helms may have said the same, but his embrace of Republican objectives was fairly selective, and he often seemed determined to make the GOP conform to his positions instead.
A Helms-less GOP may be able to lure back some of the centrist voters who went for former President Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. In North Carolina, Helms' retirement opens the door for Elizabeth Hanford Dole, who remains popular in her home state, but her pro-choice, pro-gun-control stances won't attract Jesse's voters in next year's GOP primary. Ironically, the Republican politician who would be most adept at exploiting her liabilities and eager to do so is the one she hopes to succeed. Equally ironic, a Dole victory would suggest that Helms' party has left him again.