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Jesse Helms cut a wide swath in U.S. politics

Power is perishable, and when politicians exit the stage, it often doesn't take long -- especially in Washington -- for their importance to be only vaguely recollected.

Former Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a staunch conservative who weighed in on a range of domestic and foreign policy issues, died today So with the death today of former Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina at age 86, we offer some reminders of the central role -- for good, ill or a combination of both, depending on one's viewpoint -- he played in public policy and political discourse (The Times' obituary can be read here).

Back in the late 1990s, the Almanac of American Politics said flatly of Helms that "no American politician is more controversial, beloved in some quarters and hated in others...."

This, at a time when Bill Clinton was deep into his presidency.

First elected to his Senate seat in 1972, aided by Richard Nixon's landslide in that year's presidential election and the increasing GOP appeal to the South's conservative ethos, Helms at first was chiefly known for his staunch -- and often colorfully expressed -- opposition to abortion rights, gay rights and a raft of other liberal causes.

He truly became a figure to be reckoned with, however, through his tenure on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (he eventually became its chairman). As the political almanac put it, he used his seat "to conduct something like his own foreign policy." During Ronald Reagan's presidency and the administration of George H.W. Bush, Helms and a band of loyal aides "developed their own sources and attempted to manipulate State Department appointments to help the contras in Nicaragua and rightists in El Salvador."

Helms was revered on the right. In comments on MSNBC today, Pat Buchanan judged him "the second most important conservative of the second half of the 20th Century" (the first, of course, being Reagan).

And he was reviled on the left, perhaps never more so then during his 1990 reelection campaign when he faced a spirited challenge from an African-American, Harvey Gantt.

That race overshadowed all others in the nation that year, and it lives on due to the controversial -- many say race-baiting ads -- that Helms employed.

The best-known ad sought to tap into resentment against "quota" hiring practice by showing white hands crumpling a job rejection notice while a narrator intoned that the better qualified applicant had been bypassed for a minority hire.

Less well-known is a spot that berated Gantt for waging a "secret" campaign because he was advertising on black-owned radio stations.

Helms won the election, 53% to 47%, and then defeated Gantt by virtually the same margin in a rematch six years later.

As our friend Frank James notes in his posting on The Swamp, Helms "was more complicated on racial issues than the caricature he had with much of the public."

Still, some will see irony in the timing of Helms' passing -- just a few weeks before Barack Obama makes racial history when he becomes the Democratic presidential nominee.

-- Don Frederick

Photo credit: Newsmakers

Comments () | Archives (43)

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I find it hard to hear the chorus of pols, including Bush and company, applauding this man as a true patriot.

Personally, I find it repellent that he died on the 4th of July. It is too bad he did not live long enough to see a president of biracial parents. That would be more painful to Helms than any malady he suffered over the years.

As a racist and homophobe, he had no peer in 20th Century American politics. He used his power to oppress those that were powerless.

But, maybe I should say one nice thing. Today I read where he and his wife adopted a 9-year old boy with cerebral palsy back in 1962 after they boy apparently made a plea for parents through a local media outlet.

I suppose even the most mean-spirited of people have their moments.

Helms was not particularly complicated...if it was good for Jesse, it was good. He was brilliant at sizing up the fears of his core voters and playing it to the rafters.

As for his death; as far as I'm concerned, it was postponed far longer than it should have been.

People often claim that Jessie Helms was racist. I personally did not find this so when I worked with him during the 1991-1994 Haitian Embargo. I was injected into Haiti’s Forces Armees d’Haiti as an interface between both sides when diplomatic relations were effectively severed. I was in constant communication with the Senator and his staff members who made up a small, select intelligence operation.

He had a balanced, sympathetic approach to the Haitians and their endless problems, unlike the attitudes of his Congressional Black Caucus associates who used their color as a weapon. He was interested in the well-being of Haiti’s poor. The Black Caucus couldn’t have cared less, although they often gave lip service to the challenge.

Jessie Helms was respected by my Haitian friends and associates.

He was one of the best friends Haiti had, through these troubled times.

I am proud to have included him among my short list of real friends.

Come on down Jesse. We have reserved a special place in HELL for you. Yes, you are our hero. Segregationist, homophobe, true beliver that aids was a judgement on gays by Jesus Crist. Protector of the aristocracy, punisher of the poor. Come on down. We have been waiting for you all your life...

I am no Helms fan, but it is a bit hypocritical of people such as Scootmandubious to hail the coming of the Racist Barack "W" Obama.

Every day the second messiah is sounding more like Bush.

First FISA, now Iraq, with a little sprinkle of faith based initiatives.

Gee, a man who will end up spending over 2/3 of a billion dollars to becomes president. Of course it is change we can believe in. The "change" was bought and well paid for.

It may smell like change to you, but it reeks of the same of fecal matter to me.

Too bad he didn't die 86 years ago. Good riddens.

I was in high school in the late 60's when the nation was going through the throws of social change. I had teachers who were of the same ilk as Helms and remember not liking these people instinctively not because I was taught differently at home but because I knew these people were hateful and in defense of the old ways.

Many of these people were also against the 18 year old vote. Ok to be drated and die in Viet Nam but not ok to have the right to vote? I am a veteran.

When the last of the helms types are gone the world will be a better place. Hate is a cancer.

On the same day the White House praises Jesse Helms, whose earthly husk is being swept away long after his intellect--such as it was--rotted, and Thomas Jefferson , whose legacy this corrupt and half-witted Administration has tried to kill.

Some 4th!

Like Jesse Helms I was born in Monroe, N.C. I had the opportunity to witness firsthand the Jim Crow system of racial prejudice. Fortunately our country is evolving and Jim Crow and other unjust social systems are being replaced. But Jesse Helms was unable to evolve and stirred to pot of racial hatred to the end. Today I see the necessity of death. It was the only way to remove the venom ofJesse Helms' hatred and racism.

Jess was a white good ol boy, in his mind if it was not white it wasn't right, but as he become older he change a little, still if he had his way blacks would still be slaves and mexican would only be gardners.....

All I can say is HALLELUJAH!

May you finally stare justice straight in the face as hell fire burns your filthy skin from your body.

Who are the hatemongers?

We need more Jesses- Like him or not he was what we have few of anymore- someone who believed something and stood for something! Instead we are saddled with would be leaders who shift with the wind to satisfy their lust for power.

I only hope and pray another Jesse rises to battle the forces of evil. HMMMMM, perhaps I'll run for office to fight the good fight agains the godless, atheist, homosexual commies that are taking over this country.


He was against afirmiaive action not against blacks,
you all want to hate but it's because you're in the indigo liberal la-la land of California.
If I remember right your state is burning not NC.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the late senator's political views ,while he held office, the real political tragedy was he continued to get re-elected. Once again, another signal that voters get what they deserve.

it is perfect that jesse helms died on independence day. for we are now FREE of his hatred. while the death of a human being warrants a moment of compassion, i am heartened by the thought that with his passing the world has just a little bit less hate and meanness in it. if only just for a moment. my state is not burning. my marriage is not legal. but my love for my "damned lesbian" partner is strong and our long partnership is the stuff dreams are made of.

Hell is burning a little brighter today with this poor excuse of a human serving as kindling. It's true what they say..."Only the good die young". I hope he was greated by throng of gay men who died needlessly because of this morons blocking of federal funding.

I wonder how many people here really know much about him at all or is it it just more of the same old political blather by hypocritical partisan haters. Personally I didn't subscribe to his views FROM FIFTY YEARS AGO but he represented the views of his constituants in a different era in this country. Different people have different views and that's their right. Be as "open minded" to different opinions as you claim to be. Rejoicing in someone's death you didn't agree with only reflects poorly on you, not him. A little civility please.

I would have rather he croaked watching Barack Obama sworn in as president.

You people have no respect for the dead. You should be ashamed of yourselves. I may not have liked the man views but to say that hell is brighter today means you are just mean. He was elected several times so somebody liked him. Liberals are all the same. Your outrage is reserved only when a conservative says something 10% as bad as I have read here today. I hope all of you burn in hell for your communist blame America first ideas that have ruined this country. Keep looking for your govenrment handouts instead taking care of your own problems.

I write as one who worked in Jesse Helms' first Senate campaign as a college student and who once served as a USDA attorney under the sponsorship of Helms' office. Jesse Helms did not hate black people, which seems to be the hardest thing his detractors have to understand. He supported segregation, as did Sam Ervin and other racial moderates (non-firebrands) of that earlier generation who believed that few blacks could compete and thrive in white society and that the best interests of both races would be served by keeping them apart. This was also the position, during his time, of Booker T Washington. When that battle was lost, and the time of segregation had passed in the minds of both races, Helms insisted, with other conservatives, that competition between the races then be strictly impartial and equal, without the subterfuge of quotas and set-asides to "cook" the outcome. This was the meaning of the "hands" commercial, which had nothing to do with Harvey Gantt's race, but with his support for the race-based programs Helms and most North Carolinians found to be pernicious.

Helms did hate communism. This is why he opposed the King holiday, believing the man to have been the tool of communists, if not one himself. And those who have been quick to jump on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, even among Democrats, have conveniently forgotten that Martin Luther King engaged in the same inflammatory anti-war rhetoric in his day.

Helms opposed "gay" sex for the same reason he opposed alcohol and narcotic drug abuse. These are activities which not only poison the body (as does tobacco), but also the mind and soul of those who engage. And it was the human soul, for Helms, a life-long Sunday School teacher, which was the paramount concern. As your obituary acknowledges, he would show compassion even for those who had sown the seeds of their own misery.

Jesse Helms held convictions which his adversaries found wrong-headed, but the one charge they could never get to stick, except in their own ignorant minds, was hypocrisy.

I find it incredulous that LA Times chose to use Jeff's backhanded, disgusting comment on the main LA Times page. Then again, it was certainly a lot less viscious than manyh of the other comments.

Good Riddance! God Has Blessed America with Death of Jesse Helms.

The World is safer now with Death of Jessie Helms.

Whether you liked him or not (personally I didn't because he called one of the greatest TV satires in history, "Married With Children", as "garbage.") he will surely be missed because he was one of those figures that you always liked to have as an arch-nemisis, like Sherlock Holmes had in Dr. Moriarty, though no one really believes he was really evil, but maybe misguided. Most people would, whether they were Democrats or Republicans, though preferably, he attacked Democrats.

Still, it is always sad when the story has to come to an end so soon, and Helms's story was one of the most fascinating stories to be addicted to.

Helms was one of the last true patriots.

I thank HELL for finally taking him. I have been waiting for this day. HE WILL BE HAVING A MEETING WITH JERRY FALWELL. ABOUT..........RIGHT NOW.

The not so surprising thing about Helms is how little he accomplished while a politician. He instead became the poster child for the far right tactics of demonizing your opponent, winning an election, demonize some more. Keep your face in the media, while your only goal is to bad mouth, create fear, win elections, and consolidate power. This is the cycle that Helms continued throughout his career. His association with El Salvadoran death squad leader Robert D’Aubuisson is truly frightening. I would think even hard core conservatives would abhor this person. Certainly anyone who counts God as part of their lives would. Hard to believe Helms was in politics so long and has nothing to show for it but a trail of hatred.

When I read remarks like those of William Dalton et al who defend Jesse Helms, Sam Ervin, Booker T. Washington, and other segregationists with the tired mantra that it was 'moderate' thinking for the times, I am disgusted. I would remind such apologists that as far back as 1903 W.E.B. Du Bois condemned segregation and its supporters like Booker T. Washington in the strongest terms in his book The Souls of Black Folk. Right is right and wrong is wrong no matter what time period we're discussing, and those who can't grasp that basic truth, like Jesse Helms and his followers, are morally bankrupt.

"He was against afirmiaive action not against blacks.
you all want to hate but it's because you're in the indigo liberal la-la land of California.
If I remember right your state is burning not NC."

Very weak. Don't take it from me, take it from Jesse Helms himself:

"They should ask their parents if it would be all right for their son or daughter to marry a Negro."
-- In response to Duke University students holding a vigil after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, 1968

Jesse Helms was a racist and a bigot of every kind. Deal with it.

Say what you want about California, but your state elected this racist slime over and over again. And you still try to deny what he really was.

As far as California burning, happens all the time. We'll check back with you after your next hurricane. Dunce.

I find it admazing that in demeaning Sentor Helms, the liberal left once again show the color of hate is alive and kicking.

What more can be said? Jesse Helms was a bigot, a racist, a hypocrite, a supporter of big tobacco, and did everything in his power to block the rights of those who were not his color.

No wonder George Bush called him a patriot.

LA Times - you've reached a new low today.

The posts here show what happens when historical perspective is lost (or more likely never gained). We are living in a generation of solipsists.

Jeff: How can it be a tragedy for those who agreed with his political stance that he was consistently re-elected?

Now we find out the LA Times article had some major factual errors...I know I'm shocked.

Well, Raymond Macon, it is true that 100 years ago, W.E.B. DuBois condemned segregation. At the time he was in a decided minority, even among other blacks in America. And yet he was treated with greater respect than the Jesse Helmses and Booker T Washingtons are today. I don't believe in segregation and never did. But I knew many who did and knew they had the best of motivations, just as did both Booker Washington and DuBois. No, we are not today morally superior to our ancestors who embraced segregation. On the contrary, we have our own new set of intolerances to repent of. Segregation was proven to be unworkable and a detriment to what America needed to become. But I suspect that those who take the trouble to demonize people who promoted segregation protest too loudly. Perhaps they don't believe the case has really been made - that the segregationist cause can't be defeated on its merits.

Is this why "liberals" insist on continuing and institutionalizing the regime of "counting by race"?

This is a great day, another narrow minded, destructive, dead Republican. The world is just a little bit safer now. They say he suffered from dementia in his last years, funny, it seems these types have much in common, just look at Bush. In Bush's case though, he has suffered from dementia his whole life. Good riddance.

Billy Joe Bob:
Oh, we'll get the fires out, and still get to live in the one place people from all over the world overwhelmingly want to be.

You'll still be stuck in North Carolina.

HYPOCRITES! You who proclaim your joy at the death of a man who both hated & loved by spewing upon him your own vitrolic vomit of hate do also condemn yourselves to the same Hell you so wickedly imagine him suffering. Who do you imagine has shown more compassion to the poorest of the poor in Haiti (poor AND Black), you or the late Senator Helms??
By whose standard of righteousness do you judge? Your own? Then may you be condemned by the words of your own mouths!
Your celebration of the death of your enemies will shame you to silence by the One Judge who said "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you."
I, for one, will not rejoice at your death, but will grieve for your eternal punishment.

There is a god. Thank you Jesus for taking back your monster.

>>... Once again, another signal that voters get what they deserve....<<

Massachusetts taught us that long ago.

The liberals sure are tolerant. Celebrating Helm's death is disgusting. These people are sick in the head.

Gay rights was the only thing this bigot had right. But not hate but to prod people to come out these demonic acts. If they don't repent and stop the act they and the people who support their evil acts will join jesse when they die! Lev18:22 I cor 6 Romans I


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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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