Farewell to a Provincial Redneck
Jesse Helms' stranglehold on U.S. foreign policy was a national embarrassment.
It seemed somehow profane that Sen. Jesse Helms should have managed to depart this life on the 232nd anniversary of the declaration of American independence. To die on the Fourth of July, one can perhaps be forgiven for feeling, is or ought to be a privilege reserved for men of the stamp of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom expired on that day in 1826, 50 years after the promulgation of the declaration. One doesn't want the occasion sullied by the obsequies for a senile racist buffoon.
Or, as the obituary in the New York Times so gently phrased it, for a man for whom "the orderliness of the small town even encompassed racial segregation; as a child, he saw it not as a great evil but as an accepted part of his world." He continued to "see" it that way as an adult, too, switching his party allegiance from Democrat to Republican in tune with the Nixon "Southern strategy" and famously deploying the "white hands" ad 20 years later, in which the genius of Dick Morris exploited the woes of the rejected white job seeker. That episode did get a mention in the obituary, but there was no recollection of Helms' role in opposing the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, in protecting the apartheid state from the imposition of sanctions, or in defending white Rhodesia. (Margaret Thatcher's government complained officially at one point about the role played by Helms staffer John Carbaugh in urging the white settler regime of Ian Smith to hang tough in the independence negotiations.)
His chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was a period of national embarrassment and, sometimes, disgrace. The Helms-Burton Act of 1996, imposing additional economic sanctions on Cuba, multiplied the misery and beggary of Cuba's luckless inhabitants while doing nothing whatever to weaken its military dictatorship. Helms' amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act in 1973, forbidding American aid to any family-planning groups that even mentioned the option of abortion, also greatly added to the woes and miseries of millions of Africans. (Fairness obliges me to say that in his last year in the Senate he did somewhat relax his equally stubborn and reactionary opposition to measures designed to combat AIDS in Africa. But this was only because it had by then become obvious that the disease was heterosexually transmitted. In general, his attitude to the AIDS plague was determined by a Bible-based bigotry that saw it as divine retribution for perversion.)
I make no apology for calling him a provincial redneck, because that, to be fair to him once more, was how he thought of himself and even described himself. It was a scandal that a man with so little knowledge of the outside world should have had such a stranglehold on American foreign policy for so long. He once introduced Benazir Bhutto as the prime minister of India. All right, that could have happened to anybody. But what about the hearings on North Korea in which he made repeated references to "Kim Jong the Second"? In order to prevent any repetition of this idiotic gaffe, Helms' staff propped up a piece of card on which was clearly written the pronunciation "Kim Jong ILL." The senator from North Carolina duly made the adjustment, referring thenceforth to the North Korean despot as "Kim Jong the Third."
I remember watching him at a hearing in the early 1980s, on the confirmation of Richard Burt as ambassador to Germany, and marveling that such a venomous hick could be in a position to block a treaty or to stall a nomination. To the delicacy of foreign relations, he brought all the sophistication of a crusader against "modern art." (On this issue, the New York Times obituarist felt more confident, I noticed, allowing himself a mild smirk at Helms' admitted failure to "figure out" the Alexander Calder mobile that was installed in the lobby of the Senate's newly opened Hart Building. Philistinism is an offense, even if it is not as rank as racism.) Had it not been for Helms, it is unlikely that the United States would have become so fatally embroiled with the scabrous contras of Nicaragua. And probably nobody but Helms could have surveyed the situation in El Salvador in the 1980s and concluded that the problem with that small and tortured country was that its government was already too socialist.
In his own deceptively folksy fashion, Helms was extremely beady-eyed when it came to questions of money, and his long-term dominance of what was deceptively called the National Congressional Club gave him a position of ultra-patronage in the world of the political action committee and the direct-mail slush fund. This ability to shake the trees and to distribute the fruits of fundraising secured him a tremendous deference at the time, not just among liberal Republicans but also among Democrats who needed a favor. I recall wincing at the way Madeleine Albright fawned on him when she needed Senate support for the elementary business of paying America's outstanding dues at the United Nations. The reward, for her and for those like her, was to hear Helms say in 1994 that if President Clinton ever visited North Carolina, "he'd better bring a bodyguard." This coarse remark was later disowned to everyone's satisfaction, but by that stage it was becoming clear to anybody with eyes to see and ears to hear that Helms was over the hill.
The way to mark Helms' passing is to recognize that he prolonged the life of the old segregated South and the Dixiecrat ascendancy and that in his own person, not unlike Strom Thurmond, he personified much of its absurdity and redundancy.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Jess Helms by Susana Gonzalez/Getty Images.