Jesse Helms did not keep secrets. This is about the kindest thing that could be said about the still steaming legacy left by the longtime Senator from North Carolina, but it is and has always been true.
When Helms was a pseudo-journalist at popular Raleigh radio and television station WRAL, he publicly hitched his cart to Willis Smith, a candidate for one of the state’s two Senate seats in 1950; Smith nearly conceded the election before Helms convinced him to push for a run-off, a campaign that peaked with its infamous, “White People Wake Up” ad. Eight years later, as a city councilor, Helms wrote a letter openly opposing an upcoming visit by Martin Luther King, Jr., feeling it would be “a blot on the good name of Raleigh.” Helms steadfastly opposed and berated Brown v. Board of Education, the Voting Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act through his dying day.
After being elected to the Senate in 1972, Helms, who at one point was, chair of the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs before rising to Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, defended a horrific murder committed by the soldiers of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet by saying of one of the victims, “the boy’s mother was a communist.” He opposed a federal MLK holiday, voted against the Violence Against Women Act because it included protections for LGBT citizens, and thanked a caller on Larry King Live who praised him for “everything you’ve done to help keep down the [n-words].” He ran the 1990 “Hands” ad, a literal textbook example of race-baiting. And in a condolence letter Helms wrote to Patsy Clarke, a long-time campaign donor who had lost her son, Mark, to AIDS, he told Clarke that he wished Mark, “had not played Russian roulette with his sexual activity.”
This was Jesse Helms, out in the open for all to see. He did not apologize; he did not repent. By every available account, who he was in private is who he was in public: a virulent racist and homophobe who doused himself in good-ole-boy-isms and played the role of Protector Of The People while amassing a three-decade reign atop one of the federal government’s most prestigious and inaccessible offices.
It feels important to note this plainly now—a dozen years after his passing, situated firmly in a political reality he would have relished in seeing—if only because the passing of time naturally encourages us to soften our collective memories of people, even if the figures they cut were as jagged as Helms’s. Some of this can be attributed to human nature. But, as we found out this week, it’s also the product of people strategically plotting to save their own ass.