Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Goodbye and Good Riddance, Jesse Helms

Independent Weekly, 7-16-08

(Note from 2014: This post is excerpted from the new eBook available on Amazon - When Harvey Met Jesse: Attack Ads of the 1990 Gantt-Helms U.S. Senate Race in North Carolina)

I met Jesse Helms in the closing days of the 1990 U.S. Senate campaign in North Carolina. It was at one of his rallies at a Smithfield high school gymnasium in Johnston County, a place with a history of racial tensions. Schools weren’t integrated in Smithfield until 1965, eleven years after Brown v. Board of Education. As late as the mid-70s, a billboard stood on the outskirts of town proclaiming, "This is Klan Country – Help Fight Communism and Integration!"

I went to the rally because I had spent the summer traveling the state to register voters against Helms as a co-founder of Musicians Organized for Voter Education (MOVE). Now I had to see the man in the flesh.

The warm up speakers were other right-wing Republican candidates and current office holders, but none of them held a candle to Jesse when he took the stage. Frail looking and thin even then, his voice nonetheless boomed around the gymnasium like a thunderstorm. He played the crowd's fears in a virtuoso performance, stirring them out of their seats in demagogic riff after riff about homosexuals, liberals, and minorities trying to destroy the North Carolina way of life. He warned of dire consequences that would follow a victory by his African-American opponent, former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt.

Helms tossed around staples from that year's version of his stump speech. Like justifying his crusade against art by hissing, "what that perverted, homosexual filth is, is not modern day Michaelangelo, it is modern day Sodom and Gomorrah!" Or mixing bigotry with down home country flavor, telling the crowd to "Think about it. Homosexuals and lesbians, disgusting people marching in our streets demanding all sorts of things, including the right to marry each other. How do you like them apples?"

Illustration by Ethan Wenberg

Never before or since have I witnessed a crowd whipped into such a frenzy, or felt more prejudice and ignorance all around me than I experienced at that rally. Maybe it was that the audience, like those attending many of Helms' events, was made up mostly of senior citizens raised during the segregation era. They grew up bigoted partly because they didn’t know any better, and voted for Helms because he appeared to be like them. Yet to me, it seemed that hatred hung in the air.

When it was over, by chance I ran into Helms as he was leaving the high school, and something possessed me to shake his hand, to see if he felt as menacing as he sounded. His hand was cold, and soft and flabby as a jellyfish. He was just a man, not the Devil. But there was evil in his politics.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Jesse Helms' Shameful Legacy Can't Be Whitewashed

The Huffington Post, 7-13-08

(Note from 2014: This post is excerpted from the new eBook available on Amazon - When Harvey Met Jesse: Attack Ads of the 1990 Gantt-Helms U.S. Senate Race in North Carolina)

The urge to speak no ill of the dead is a powerful one. And it was on full display this week as former Senator Jesse Helms was laid to rest. Although one brave North Carolina state employee, L.F. Eason, resisted that urge when he refused to lower the flag at his state lab to honor Helms and was forced to retire.

Republican leaders including Vice President Cheney attended Helms' funeral. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky eulogized Helms as one of the "kindest men" in Congress, and said, "no matter who you were, he always had a thoughtful word and a gentle smile."

Which is a load of crap. Clearly, McConnell saw the charming face Helms could present to the world when he wanted to. But the real Jesse Helms oozed out nearly every time he opened his mouth to slander those who didn't agree with him. He claimed "crime rates and irresponsibility among Negroes are a fact of life which must be faced" in a 1981 New York Times interview, and in 1963 asked, "Are civil rights only for Negroes? White women in Washington who have been raped and mugged on the streets in broad daylight have experienced the most revolting sort of violation of their civil rights."

Helms reserved his full disgust for gays and lesbians, who he called "weak, morally sick wretches" (1994), accused of engaging in "incredibly offensive and revolting conduct" (1990), and warned his constituents to beware "homosexuals, lesbians, disgusting people marching in the streets, demanding all sorts of things, including the right to marry each other" (1990).

Beyond his hateful words, Helms' bigotry was shown by his political aims. He led the opposition to the federal Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, supported the apartheid regime in South Africa, and consistently opposed civil rights legislation. For nearly two decades, he fought tooth and nail against expanded federal funding for AIDS research, and exploited gays and lesbians as convenient scapegoats in his constant fear-mongering crusade.

Helms at 1990 campaign rally, moments after calling gays "disgusting people"

Media post-mortems of Helms' career were mostly deferential, especially in North Carolina, the state he represented in the Senate for five terms. N.C. television stations and newspapers glossed over almost all of Helms' ugly history as the last unapologeticly racist politician of the segregation era. Even the liberal Raleigh News & Observer kept its gloves on, despite having been Helms' favorite press punching bag for years.

It was largely a repeat of the softball treatment Helms got when he announced his retirement in 2001. Then, the Washington Post called Helms "one of the most powerful conservatives on Capitol Hill for three decades," and the New York Times said he'd been "a conservative stalwart for nearly 30 years." But they avoided serious discussion of how Helms stirred the pot of bigotry and hatred to win elections and further his political career.

Helms grew up in small town Monroe, N.C., home to an active Ku Klux Klan. His father, known as Mr. Jesse, was the police chief and a mean, imposing 6' 4" man who didn't hesitate to intimidate and run roughshod over the civil rights of Monroe's black citizens.

Jesse A. Helms, Sr.

In North Carolina historian Tim Tyson's biography of civil rights leader Robert Williams, head of the Monroe NAACP, Williams described watching when he was eleven years old as Mr. Jesse beat a black woman on the street, then "dragged her off to the nearby jailhouse, her dress up over her head." He was haunted for years by the woman's "tortured screams as the flesh was ground away from the friction of the concrete."

Interviewed in 2005 for the documentary Senator No and asked about Monroe in the 1920s and 30s, Helms said, "In so many ways I think the relationship between the races was far better than it is now. I could give you a thousand examples of why I'm convinced of that. I don't know of anybody who ever persecuted anybody of another race."

Helms had his first brush with statewide politics in 1950. Employed as a radio reporter for conservative magnate A.J. Fletcher's WRAL network, he unofficially aided right wing Raleigh attorney Willis Smith in his primary campaign against incumbent U.S. Senator and North Carolina liberal hero Frank Porter Graham.

Graham beat Smith in the initial Democratic primary, and Smith had all but decided not to call for a runoff. But three Supreme Court decisions undermining segregation were announced within weeks, inflaming racial tensions in the South. Helms took to the airwaves and urged Smith's voters to assemble at his Raleigh house and ask him to reconsider. A mob of supporters responded, and Smith called for a runoff.

The scene outside Willis Smith's home in Raleigh, June 1950

In the runoff, Helms used the skills he had learned as a reporter to help create scurrilous, race-baiting ads and handbills for Smith's candidacy. One was headlined, "White People - WAKE UP Before It's Too Late," and asked, "Do you want negroes working beside you, your wife and daughters in your mills and factories? Frank Graham favors mingling of the races."

Handbill created by Jesse Helms for Willis Smith's 1950 runoff campaign

The most infamous was a flyer featuring a fake photo, doctored to show Sen. Graham's wife dancing with a black man. Helms and his backers later went to great lengths to cover up his role in the Smith campaign, but as biographer Ernest Furgurson put it, "Jesse was in it up to his neck." Helms went to Washington with the victorious Sen. Willis Smith, hired as his top assistant.

Throughout the 1960s, Helms denounced the civil rights movement from his bully pulpit as the most widely known TV and radio commentator in North Carolina. He delivered snarling five-minute commentaries that were broadcast twice a day at the end of WRAL's newscasts, railing against integration, liberals, and anything the Kennedys said or did. Helms' diatribes were reprinted in newspapers throughout North Carolina and the South with titles like "Nation Needs to Know of Red Involvement in Race Agitation!"

He called civil rights workers "Communists and sex perverts," claimed there was "evidence that the Negroes and whites participating in the march to Montgomery participated in sex orgies of the rawest sort," and commented "they should ask their parents if it would be all right for their son or daughter to marry a Negro," in response to students holding campus vigils when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

Helms won election to the U.S. Senate in 1972 after tying his Greek-American opponent to George McGovern and using the slogan, "Jesse Helms: He's One of Us!" He was soon dubbed "Senator No" for his votes against government spending on social programs, including education, environmental protection, school lunches, food stamps, and aid to the disabled.

During the 1976 presidential campaign, Helms and his political organization, the National Congressional Club, made a lasting impact on American politics by helping Ronald Reagan come from behind to win the North Carolina primary. This victory sparked a surge for Reagan in the late contests that almost led to his unseating President Gerald Ford as the Republican nominee. It sealed Reagan's position as the 1980 frontrunner following Ford's narrow general election loss to Jimmy Carter.

To win North Carolina, the Helms machine went all out. They ran hard-hitting attack ads slamming Ford over the Panama Canal Treaty. And of course, Helms used racially coded appeals. Tens of thousands of leaflets were distributed that alleged Ford was considering picking a black running mate.

Button from 1976 Republican Convention

Close Helms advisor Tom Ellis founded the National Congressional Club in 1973 to retire Helms' first campaign debt. He later admitted the Club's role in distributing the race-baiting leaflets against Ford, at his 1983 confirmation hearing to serve as a Reagan appointee to the Board for International Broadcasting. Ellis was forced to withdraw after it was also revealed that he served as Director of the Pioneer Fund from 1973-77, which funded research into racial genetics and churned out reports alleging blacks were genetically inferior.

National Congressional Club founder Tom Ellis

In the late 70s, Helms called for ending sanctions on formerly white run Rhodesia, today’s Zimbabwe. His aides interfered with negotiations to turn over rule to the country’s black majority by encouraging then-Prime Minister Ian Smith to hold out for more concessions.

Helms was a strong supporter of the apartheid regime in South Africa. He voted against virtually every U.S. measure ever proposed to pressure the white minority government, no matter how mild. Speaking against one attempt to impose economic sanctions, Helms claimed, "all this bill does is exacerbate the situation in South Africa." Referring to anti-apartheid protests, he asked, "who are we to be so pious about the efforts of the South African government to stop the riots, the looting, the shooting and the mayhem that's going on over there?" Even when Congress overrode a Reagan veto and finally imposed sanctions in 1986, by a lopsided Senate vote of 78-21, Helms voted no, arguing the move would result in a "lasting tyranny" of Communism in South Africa.

He even served for a time as chairman of the editorial advisory board for a conservative think tank called the International Freedom Foundation, founded in 1986, run by disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The IFF was later revealed to have been set up and funded by the South African government, dedicated to waging “political warfare” against enemies of apartheid. When Newsday broke the truth in 1995, Helms spokesman Marc Thiessen (now chief White House speechwriter for George W. Bush) claimed Helms had “never heard of” IFF.

N.C. students protesting apartheid cross paths with Helms, 1984

Helms filibustered against renewal of the Voting Rights Act in 1982. The next year, he made national headlines and drew heavy criticism when he led the charge against making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday.

In his 1984 re-election fight against sitting N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt, Helms went to the mat in a knock-down, drag-out campaign remembered as one of the nastiest campaigns in modern history. Perhaps realizing he had overreached in his overt displays of racism, Helms dialed back his attacks on blacks and minorities, although he still stirred up fear of Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign. According to the Washington Post, "his campaign newspaper featured photographs of Hunt with Jackson and headlines like ‘Black Voter Registration Rises Sharply’ and ‘Hunt Urges More Minority Registration.’"

But Helms had found a even scarier bogeyman - the homosexual menace. He and his supporters repeatedly linked Jim Hunt to gay activists and took every opportunity to "throw rocks at the gays," as the N.C. Republican Party chair explained Helms' strategy.

Helms at press conference, 1982

During the 1980s, as the AIDS crisis unfolded, Helms led the opposition in the U.S. Senate to increased federal funding for AIDS research. This was perhaps Jesse Helms' greatest crime, and left real blood on his hands. Even a modest increase in spending could have saved tens of thousands of gay Americans who died horrible, painful deaths in the years before effective AIDS drugs were developed.

In 1987 he said, "Somewhere along the line we're going to have to quarantine people with AIDS." Helms' uncaring response to the disease was explained by his tirade the next year against the bipartisan Kennedy-Hatch AIDS bill, when he claimed, "There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy."

Helms continued to oppose AIDS funding throughout the 1990s. In 1995, he fought reauthorization of the Ryan White Act, saying AIDS victims contracted the disease through "deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct." That same year, nationally syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers called him out as a liar when she published a sharp rebuke to his efforts to cut AIDS funding, headlined "These are the facts, Sen. Helms."

Helms makes his point, 2002

Sadly, this account only scratches the surface of all Jesse Helms' shameful words and deeds. No amount of whitewashing Helms' legacy can erase the stain of his reliance on hate-filled, divisive politics, or the hurt he caused so many people in the process.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

How Jesse Helms Ruled North Carolina

The Huffington Post, 7-8-08

(Note from 2014: This post is excerpted from the new eBook available on Amazon - When Harvey Met Jesse: Attack Ads of the 1990 Gantt-Helms U.S. Senate Race in North Carolina)

Jesse Helms’ death comes as no surprise, since his health had rapidly declined after he retired from the U.S. Senate in 2002. Yet it’s fitting that he died on the Fourth of July. Helms was a disgrace to North Carolina and the nation, and what better time to celebrate our independence from the bigoted, hate-filled politics he stood for.

Helms was the dominant political figure in North Carolina from the early 1970’s until his retirement. For more than a decade before that, he had been the leading conservative voice in the state as a radio and television commentator for Raleigh's WRAL network.

After his election to the Senate in 1972, he started a political operation called the National Congressional Club that pioneered the use of direct mail fundraising techniques to build a nationwide base of fervent conservative supporters. In the process, Helms helped reinvigorate the national Republican party, laid groundwork for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and became the far right's most infamous spokesman.

Helms urges Christians to get political in a 1980 promo spot for the Moral Majority

During Helms’ heyday, the question on many people’s minds about North Carolina was how could its citizens keep re-electing an extreme right wing, unrepentant segregationist, self-proclaimed “redneck” like Helms? The perception was that the state was filled with racists, or that Helms’ voters were ignorant and uneducated. The reality is more complex.

For one thing, he started in Tar Heel politics as a household name thanks to his decade-long career as a radio and TV commentator - the Rush Limbaugh of his day. Helms got lucky running for election in the GOP landslide years of 1972 and 1984, coasting on Nixon and Reagan’s coattails. He faced a black opponent twice at a time when no other African-Americans were in the Senate. His national fundraising operation ensured he would almost always have a financial advantage over his opponents. And Helms shrewdly made sure his office would be second to none when it came to constituent service, helping North Carolinians navigate the federal government bureaucracy. This last factor in particular won him many votes over the years.

But Helms did rely on hate-mongering to keep himself in power. He denounced Democrats, liberals and communists in virtually every breath, then went far beyond that. Helms’ vicious, bullying attacks on African-Americans, gays and lesbians, civil rights workers, the poor, and AIDS victims were legendary. His speeches, direct mail appeals, and campaign ads were a steady stream of bile.

Campaigning in Lenoir, NC, 1991

Helms poisoned the ideological well of North Carolina politics, and helped drag the entire country further to the right. Especially damning were Helms’ own words, his countless mean-spirited, prejudiced public statements for which he never apologized.

During the 1960’s, Helms ruled the North Carolina airwaves. As radio and TV news director at WRAL, his five-minute Viewpoint commentaries were broadcast twice a weekday at the end of the station’s morning and evening newscasts. They were rebroadcast on the 70 N.C. radio stations that made up WRAL’s “Tobacco Network,” and published in newspapers across North Carolina and the South.

Helms delivered more than 2,700 Viewpoints from 1960-1972, all taking hard line stands against desegregation, busing, Vietnam War protests, and anything else progressive. He blamed the civil rights movement on outside agitators, accused Martin Luther King Jr. of being a communist, and called the 1964 Civil Rights Act “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress.”

Locking down the tobacco vote during Helms' first Senate campaign, 1972

The N.C. Republican Party recruited Helms to run for U.S. Senate in 1972, against a three-term liberal Democratic Congressman named Nick Galifianakis. His name was so long it needed two campaign buttons to fit it all, and Helms’ slogan was, “Jesse Helms: He’s One Of Us!” Linking Galifianakis to George McGovern, who was deeply unpopular in North Carolina and would lose the state by forty points, Helms rode Nixon’s huge victory to a 54% win and his first Senate term.

In 1978, he raised $8 million through his direct mail base, the most raised by any Senator up to that time. Facing a weak opponent who had been disowned by the state Democratic party, Helms outspent him by 30-1, and was re-elected with 55% of the vote.

Helms with Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office, 1981

Reagan’s 1984 re-election landslide helped Helms beat popular, incumbent N.C. Governor and moderately liberal Democrat Jim Hunt by a 52-48% margin. Hunt raised $9.4 million, but Helms outspent him by nearly 2-1. The Hunt-Helms race was loud, nasty, and notable for Helms’ use of gay-baiting to pull out a win.

The $26 million spent by both candidates funded a two-year war of political attack ads that according to the New York Times, "defined the use of saturation negative media...[and] set the stage for the search-and-destroy tactics of the 1988 Bush Presidential campaign." Jim Hunt had been expected to seek a rematch, but as 1990 approached, he announced he would not be a candidate.

Helms’ direct mail money came in small amounts, with the same contributors being asked to give again and again over time. The success of Barack Obama’s current presidential fundraising juggernaut rests largely on the same principle, updated for the twenty-first century using the internet. Contributors to Helms were mostly elderly conservatives who lived outside North Carolina, from whom he raised more than $15 million in contributions averaging less than $35 each between 1987 and 1990.

In 1990, Helms ran for his fourth Senate term against former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt, who was the first African-American candidate ever nominated for a U.S. Senate seat by the Democratic Party. The Gantt-Helms U.S. Senate race was the most closely watched political battle of the year. National media descended on the state, camera crews and print reporters rushing from campaign appearance to appearance as if a presidential campaign was unfolding.

Gantt was Helms’ polar opposite in every conceivable way. A proud liberal running against the most right-wing conservative in the Senate. One of the heroes of the civil rights movement, the first black student to integrate Clemson University, versus a notorious white bigot who opposed desegregation. A challenger with a positive, progressive agenda of change taking on the incumbent dubbed Senator No for his opposition to social programs, foreign aid, and AIDS research.

The most infamous Helms attack ad of the campaign was dubbed “White Hands.” It showed the hands of a white male crumpling a job rejection letter, and claimed Gantt supported “racial quotas.” But Helms aired many other hard hitting ads that put Gantt on the defensive. Some accused Gantt of wanting to “cut defense up to $300 billion,” and of favoring abortions "in the final weeks of pregnancy," plus sex-selection abortions. Helms flooded the airwaves with attacks on Gantt’s credibility, values, and race.

Gantt pulled even with Helms in polls taken that summer, and by mid-October, led Helms 49-41 in a Charlotte Observer poll. In response, Helms blitzed the state in a series of campaign rallies and unleashed a final wave of attack ads, including the “White Hands” spot, released five days before the election. He spent more than $13 million overall compared to Gantt’s slightly less than $8 million. On election day, Helms defeated Gantt by a 53-47% margin.

Six years later, Gantt sought a rematch. He rallied opposition around the country to Helms and made up the fundraising gap, actually outspending Helms by $8 million to $7.8 million. Helms’ bankroll was much smaller than in 1990, following a messy split with the directors of his own National Congressional Club. Helms refused to debate and his health became an issue in the campaign.

Progressives had high hopes for a Gantt victory the second time around, but he fared little better against Helms. Like he had tied his earlier opponents to Democrats like McGovern and Mondale, this time Helms capitalized on Bill Clinton’s weakness in North Carolina. Clinton would lose to Bob Dole by 49-44%. Unlike in 1990, Gantt never led in polls during 1996, and Helms again beat him by a 53-46% margin.

Despite his election victories, Helms always faced opposition within the state. In his five Senate campaigns he never won more than 55% of the vote. A popular bumper sticker for years read, “I’m from North Carolina, and I don’t support Jesse Helms.”

To shore up his support, Helms’ machine coined the slogan, “You may not agree with Jesse, but at least you know where he stands.” It became a crucial part of his image. When Helms turned into a favorite target of the left, it only fired up his appeal among older, white, rural North Carolinians. National criticism consistently helped him solidify his base at home. Helms’ voters said, “He’s a sonofabitch, but he’s ours.”

Editorial cartoon from Raleigh News & Observer, 1990

In the end, North Carolina found enough reasons to keep Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate for three decades. We may be rid of Helms, but his toxic legacy won’t soon be forgotten.

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