On July 4, Jesse Helms, the former five-term United States Senator from North Carolina, passed away. His controversial political career has been chronicled in numerous obituaries, but few recall the severity of the demonization to which Helms was subjected by many liberals–who accused him of being a one-man “pantheon of evil.” These radical characterizations served to stifle honest political debate, argued Charles Horner in the January 1992 issue of COMMENTARY:
From time to time, American political figures become convenient symbols of the evil against which all enlightened people are automatically ranged. In this rogue’s gallery, the late Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin is still the greatest villain-his name has even entered into the language but he is being challenged for pride of place in our own day by another U.S. Senator, Jesse Helms.
A Republican from North Carolina, first elected in 1972 and in November 1990 reelected to a fourth term, Helms enjoys a longstanding popularity in his own state which is seldom if ever reflected in the accounts of him that appear in the press. There he is invariably seen as an ogre, a man with a “dark view of the world,” “the Grand Old Man of the Far Right,” or sometimes just “an angry old man.” He is “irrational,” an “extremist”; he appeals to the darker side of the national character.”
But the Left’s vilification of Helms, according to Horner, successfully achieved its aim:
These initiatives [to curb funding for AIDS and the NEA] have earned for Helms an enmity unique in the ongoing political debate. And it is obvious that the vilification is working. It partly explains why Helms has been left virtually alone in a battle that everyone who seeks reversal in the drift toward domestic decadence would be expected to help him fight. Of course, “enlightened” people were late converts to other causes identified with the Right; one thinks of its foreign-policy crusades to “rollback” Communism in Eastern Europe, free the Baltics, recover Russia for civilization, and ostracize the regime in Beijing. But for all that the Reagan revolution managed to do all these things, our cultural and moral order here at home is scarcely Reaganesque. Indeed, the decade which began with fretful breastbeating that Khomeniism was coming to America in the guise of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority ended with Robert Mapplethorpe’s becoming the most famous “artist” in the land–and Jesse Helms his only consequential political nemesis. No wonder that he has been demonized by the liberal culture.
Horner also relates this telling footnote:
A group of people calling themselves the Treatment Action Guerrillas spent $3,500 to secure a giant replica of a condom which they then managed to place on the chimney atop the roof of Helms’s Arlington, Virginia, home. They inflated the contraption and attached a placard to it explaining that the device was meant to prevent the spread of “unsafe politics.”
Politicians of all stripes face criticism in America and the nation’s political health depends on such scrutiny. But in the end the senator’s ideas and policies were not what was contested; instead, Helms’s detractors have reduced his legacy to, as Matthew Yglesias put it, an exemplification of “bigotry, lunatic notions about foreign policy, and tobacco subsidies.”