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The Tarheel Spellbinder

ISSUE:  Summer 1987
Hard Right: The Rise of Jesse Helms. By Ernest B. Furgurson. Norton. $18.95.

Jesse Helms’s racism is pretty well taken for granted in North Carolina. His opponents there—a minority in three senatorial elections—are concerned principally with his foreign policy posturings, fund-raising excesses, compulsive obstructionism, and preoccupation with such social issues as abortion, school prayer, and pupil busing to the neglect of economic, environmental, and human concerns.

Yet skepticism of Senator Helms elsewhere is likely to lean to some degree on what is perceived to be his bigotry, exemplified by his heavy-handed resistance to a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and steady hostility to civil rights legislation (and accented by his Claghornish style).

Ernest Furgurson, chief of the Baltimore Sun’s Washington bureau, devotes an insightful chapter of Hard Right to the racist politics that Senator Helms subtly practices and gee-whizzedly denies. “Among all the descriptive terms used about Senator Helms by his political enemies,” Furgurson writes, ” “racist” is one he objects to strongly and always.” He quotes the senator as having said to him, “All I can say is, ask the blacks that know me. There will be some professional blacks who don’t know me who may say different, but I doubt you’ll find anybody who knows me who says that. We’ve got a lot of blacks working here around the Senate, security officers and others. Ask them.”

Senator Helms’s disclaimer is the echo of what Southern spellbinders used to maintain even while enacting or tightening Jim Crow laws. Just as Helms, as a Raleigh television commentator in the sixties, was apologetic for segregationist legerdemain, W.S. Copeland, editor of the Newport News (Va.) Daily Press, in 1926 professed kindheartedness to vindicate his enthusiasm for the Massenburg Bill, then before the Virginia General Assembly, to fortify the State’s “racial integrity” policy. He was reared, the editor slobbered in his columns, “in a Southern household of whom his old mammy and others of her race were members. . . . It was impossible for any man raised with Negroes under the circumstances to have any but sentiments of affection for the Negro race.”

A generation earlier, during the Virginia constitutional debates of 1901—02, when black disfranchisement was at issue, A.L. Pedigo, a Henry County delegate, listened to so much mammy mush sloshed into white-supremacy oratory that he cried:

We have heard the testimony of the old black mammy, who, after nursing and suckling two or more generations of white babies, has been dragged around for thirty years to prove what nobody has ever denied, that there existed kindly relations between slave owners and slaves. It is now time this old woman was set free. There are thousands of other witnesses, scattered all over the State, who will hereafter be put upon the stand and examined. They are witnesses that will never die, lie, or forget. They are the old Code of Virginia laws, the acts and resolutions of the Legislatures, the records of each of the counties of the State, and the files of the newspapers of the age, and thousands of other musty documents that will be brought to light by scholars and lovers of truth who will rise among us. And they will all testify with one voice that slavery as it existed in Virginia was unchristian, barbarous, and cruel in the extreme.

Jesse Helms’ politeness to the Senate help is one witness. His “clear and steady pattern of thought and conduct,” which Furguson offers as a racial test, testifies with greater authority as to the state of his spirit: “All his public life, he has said and done things offensive to blacks, and to anyone sensitive to racial nuance. He does them, says them, and eventually people complain. He either denies his action or its racial intent. But he never says he is sorry. . . . It is one reason why Helms has won every race he has ever run.” A Republican convert, the senator relies on the votes of wavering, fundamentalist and Klan-minded Democrats—elements that helped him narrowly defeat James B. Hunt, Jr., moderate Democrat and two-term governor, in a 1984 cuss-out that Newsweek called “the most colorful, expensive, and nasty Senate contest in the country.”

Furgurson grew up in Danville, Va. , in a farm and textile belt with traditions and notions akin to those in Monroe, N.C., Helms’ home town. “It is tempting,” he muses, “to assume a direct link between Helms’ boyhood experiences and the [racial] philosophy he has embraced all his adult life.” Small Jesse, it seems, sometimes was mocked by little black girls passing his modest home on their way to the Negro school across town.

Another journalist could not resist the temptation to link all of Helms’s rancor with those young years. He is Roy Parker, Jr., editor of the Fayetteville (N.C.) Times, who has known Helms for more than 40 years. Recently Parker speculated in print that the senator is still reacting to how other boys in Monroe scrambled for seats behind him at Saturday-afternoon picture shows so they could thump his ears.

That is one of the few times that anybody ever got funny about Senator Helms. Furgurson tells us that at a Washington fund-raising dinner “obstensibly to “roast” Jesse Helms . . . nobody was willing to turn up the heat enough to roast or even singe the senator. All the jokes . . . were glowing tributes rather than insults.”

Hard Right is, for all its excellence of research and judgment, similarly humorless. (Maybe one should be satisfied that it is critical. When I inquired of the book at the local book shop, the clerk, who was new and did not know me, hastened to say it was about, not by, the senator, as if warning the buyer to beware.) Much about Helms should encourage a light finger on the keyboard—the little-read college dropout who fears academic freedom; the free-enterprise declaimer who insists on government guarantees for a tobacco-growing monopoly; the Snopesian figure who is apt, bowing and cooing, to carry on like a scene from Gone with the Wind; the son of a country-town policeman who cottons to Latin-American generalissimos and has been known to tint his own modest contribution to armed conflict.

First running for the Senate in 1972, Furgurson writes, Helms wore a Vietnam POW bracelet and told an interviewing reporter “it was too bad the country was not in Vietnam to win, as it was “in the war I was in, World War II.”” Twelve years later, debating Jim Hunt, he interrupted an exchange over veterans’ benefits to blurt, “Governor, what war were you in?” The governor—too young for Korea, overage for Vietnam—was outraged.

He should have been amused enough to turn the question 180 degrees. For Helms as a World War II sailor slept not in a hammock but his own bed, traveled not the high seas but North Carolina highways, recruiting other young fellows to man turret guns and landing craft and risk getting shot or burned or drowned. Except for a brief foray into Georgia, he spent all the war years in his home state.

If it might appear that Gilbert and Sullivan wrote Landsman Helms’ naval orders, H.V. Kaltenborn and Fulton Lewis, Jr. took over their pen to outline the work career that . would follow. Naval recruiting duty had introduced Helms to the microphone in local radio stations. “He had found his instrument,” notes Furgurson.

After removing his bell bottoms in 1945, Helms soon shed also his old city-desk job on the Raleigh Times, the city’s “other” newspaper (where he had moved from the liberal News and Observer before the war), and trained himself as a news broadcaster for a fledgling Raleigh radio station, WRAL. Embracing the owner’s extreme conservatism, he stumbled into state politics by editorializing on behalf of Willis Smith, running for the Senate in the 1952 Democratic primary, who proceeded to unseat Frank Graham, former president of the University of North Carolina, with scare and hate tactics that Helms, if he did not help invent them, in time would adopt for his own uses. Smith took him to Washington as his principal aide.

But Senator Smith died within a year and Helms returned to Raleigh to be executive director of the North Carolina Bankers Association and editor-columnist of its monthly magazine, the Tarheel Banker. In the sixties he rejoined WRAL, which had graduated into television, and “became a more conspicuous hero to the Carolinians who were angry” over the race revolution, the Vietnam turmoil, and the changing world. His commentary—simplistic, often mean, always hard right—was syndicated to 60 or 70 “Tobacco Network” radio stations and distributed free as signed columns to lazy newspapers.

The Citizen, voice of the deeper South’s White Citizens Councils, routinely picked up Helms’s pieces, along with James Jackson Kilpatrick’s segregationist editorials in the Richmond News Leader. “Long before it occurred to most other guardians of segregation to tell the people that the civil rights movement was part of the world communist conspiracy, it occurred to Helms. He came across the theory early, and never abandoned it.” Such stuff was his ticket to the Senate—with the considerable help of his shift to the Republican party just in time to capitalize on the Democratic primary defeat of veteran Senator Everett Jordan by Representative Nick Galifianakis. Helms’s newspaper ads against the Greek immigrant’s son assured Carolina voters that the boy from Monroe was “one of us.”

Furgurson presents Senator Helms as a second Joe McCarthy harassing the State Department and career diplomats with soft-on-communism charges, wrinkling the brow of a president he helped elect, and creating national constituencies for himself by hollering Red! and Block vote! (Helms’ euphemism for an older and cruder racial term). But Tailgunner Joe, as the author points out, was a loner, whereas Landsman Jesse travels with Jerry Falwell and the minor prophets and with various other organized enemies of the clock, and meanwhile heads a political machine, the Raleigh-based National Congressional Club, that shamelessly mints money through computerized appeals to the gullible, the frightened, and the fatties expecting a return, one way or another, on their investment.

Hard Right’s appearance coincided with the elections that switched control of the Senate from Republican to Democratic and flung Senator Helms from the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee back into his naysaying briarpatch. Possibly he will become more nettlesome than ever to the powers-that-be—and more precious to the increasingly distressed holy-rollers and nuke-‘em-alls.

On the other hand, the Helms political machine was ineffective in November’s elections. North Carolina rejected the Republican incumbent and chose a liberal Democrat, former Governor Terry Sanford, just retired as president of Duke University, to join Helms in the Senate. Sanford’s abilities and achievements tower above the senior senator’s, which should become especially apparent in the Foreign Relations Committee, where both now sit. Also, Helms’ primacy at discomforting President Reagan for his foreign policies, which he found timid, vanished with the disclosures, also in November, of White House adventuring in Iran and Nicaruga. The State Department meanwhile has less reason to dread Senator Helms’ sniping now that its relevance to orderly government, thanks to the latest presidential slights, has been rediscovered.

Whether Senator Helms’ star brightens or fades, he should be remembered for his influence on political campaigning. He collected and spent $16 million to rough up Jim Hunt in 1984. His methods then and on back to 1952, the year Frank Graham was mugged, anticipated the much-deplored “negative” character of last fall’s TV electioneering in state after state. Hard Right may serve longest as an explanation of the man who pioneered in the ultimate corruption of how we choose our public officials.


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