The greatest accomplishments in politics are not always noticed or remembered. Often we take worthy actions for granted if they are done behind the scenes by men who wish not to call undue attention to themselves. Such men presided smoothly over good times and made it look easy. President Eisenhower is a good example of strong, classy, conservative leader who did right by his country and his people without making a big fuss about it.
And then you have North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms.
Helms was all about fuss, all right. At any given moment, either he was making it or his opponents were, which was usually after he beat them in an election. And throughout his 30-year career as the most conservative and most hated member of the US Senate, Jesse Helms never lost an election.
We all know of how William F. Buckley purged the conservative movement of the John Birch Society in the early 1960s, thereby evicting race-realism from the conservative half of American politics for over 50 years. Well, Jesse Helms never got the memo. For years, as America kept blundering leftward in its mainstream culture, Helms often seemed to be the one doing the most to hold it back. If the culture war in the latter half of the 20th century were a tug-of-war, Jesse Helms was the man at the very end of the line with the Popeye forearms and tugboat thighs and the rope tied around his waist and his heels digging into the sand. There was no compromise in Ol’ Jesse, or “Senator No” as he was known by friend and foe alike. There was a lot of liberal legislation that never got off the ground because of him. And for this, the Alt Right today owes him a tremendous amount of gratitude.
Helms began his political career in 1950 as a staunch segregationist who helped conservative Willis Smith win his race to the Senate against University of North Carolina president Frank Porter Graham. It’s disputed exactly how much Helms helped Smith in his campaign. But we do know that it was a nasty, hard-fought battle with Smith overtly appealing to white voters and making racial charges against Graham. “White People Wake Up” read one of handbills Smith distributed to voters. In another he asked, “Do you want Negroes riding beside you, your wife, and your daughters in buses, cabs, and trains? Negroes going to white schools, and white children going to Negro schools? Negroes to occupy the same hospital rooms with you and your wife and daughters?”
I’m guessing that future Senator Helms was expecting the answer to these queries to be an emphatic, “No.” Not exactly the high road, was it? But it worked, and young Helms was soon employed as an administrative assistant to Senator Willis Smith in Washington.
For nearly the rest of his career, as a journalist, television commentator and senator, Jesse Helms stood in the way of racial “progress.” Sure, he was more upfront about it early on, but he never once wavered from his race-realism and his understanding that the forced equality and cohabitation of black and white can only lead to trouble. He was highly critical of the Civil Rights Movement. He never tired of labeling Martin Luther King, Jr. a communist and a degenerate. He staunchly opposed forced integration of schools through busing. He pushed unsuccessfully to unseal Martin Luther King’s FBI records. He filibustered against extending the Voting Rights Act. He filibustered against making Martin Luther King Day a national holiday. He supported Apartheid South Africa. He also hated affirmative action and actively campaigned against it in his later career. Unlike other former segregationists such as George Wallace and Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms never once pandered to blacks or courted them for votes. No one could say he wasn’t a model of consistency.
Hailing from rural Monroe, North Carolina, Jesse Helms was born in 1921 to a lower middle class, churchgoing, Scotch-Irish family. His father, “Mr. Jesse,” served as both the town’s chief of police and fire chief. Young Jesse was the reserved type, smart, churchgoing, and musical. As a high schooler, he won a statewide sousaphone competition. As a college student and aspiring journalist, Helms swept floors and washed dishes to survive. He served stateside as a recruiter for the US Navy during World War II. Later on, he developed an interest in libertarian economics which rivaled his devotion to the Christian bible.
“I came up between the two world wars,” Helms said in an interview. “All the people around me emphasized working and saving and personal responsibility. They spelled out in one way or another the uniqueness of America.”
After his brief stay in Washington with Willis Smith (who died in 1953), Helms returned to North Carolina where he made a career as a columnist and a radio and television commentator. His writing was filled with folksy charm and predictably did not stray from his conservative principles. His television work throughout the 1950s and 1960s however made him famous in North Carolina. His acerbic wit bordered on cruel but was never boring. He attacked left-wing professors, hippies, homosexuals, fornicators, anti-war protesters, union bosses, communists, and many more. He knew this made him seem out of fashion, but didn’t care. Why should he? He had the Bible and the Constitution and the majority of North Carolina on his side.
One of his chief concerns, of course, was the Civil Rights Movement. Writer William Snider relates:
Helms’s editorials revealed his developing fears about racial integration, but they were never as bombastic as his television commentary became later. He included racial jokes and stories in his columns, including a lovable old dialect-speaking black. When a state civic club complained about such stories, including similar ones about Baptists, Catholics, and Jews, Helms protested that the club was overreacting. “To rob the Negro of his reputation of thinking through a problem in his own fashion,” he wrote, “is about the same as trying to pretend that he doesn’t have a natural instinct for rhythm or for singing and dancing.”
That’s the thing about Jesse Helms. Once he became senator in 1972 and began acting on a national stage, he always denied being a racist. When accused of racism, he would deflect the accusation back to whomever made it and then proclaim his innocence. “I don’t think you will find a black citizen anywhere who knows me who will say that I am anti-black, anti-yellow, or anti-anything,” he once said. “I judge people on the basis of merit.”
In a sense, he had a point. He certainly didn’t like liberal blacks, such as the time when he shared an elevator with black Senator Carol Moseley-Braun and purportedly sang “Dixie” in order to make her cry. But Jesse Helms didn’t like liberals in general, regardless of race. There is little on the record of Helms abusing a conservative or otherwise respectful black. In fact, when black civil rights icon James Meredith was looking for a job in government in the late 1980s, Helms took him on. When asked why he accepted a job with the notorious Senator Helms, Meredith responded that Helms was the only person in the Senate who responded to his letters.
I can’t prove this, but I suspect that Helms had no animus at all towards blacks and actually felt he was acting on their behalf whenever he opposed racial integration and other civil rights measures. Helms was at heart an old-school segregationist, not a white supremacist. He felt that the races could coexist provided that the law enforced that natural order of things, which included the manifest differences between black and white. And for Helms, anything that took people away from the natural order of things was evil. I’m sure he felt he was doing his black constituents a favor by standing up for the natural order. Statistics on crime, illegitimacy, drug abuse, unemployment, and educational achievement among blacks today prove that the Civil Rights Movement had been a failure and that Helms had indeed been correct. So then, who really is the racist here? The people who pushed blacks into the ill-advised integration experiment, or the man who wanted to keep them segregated where they would do the most good and the least amount of harm?
Another reason the racism charge never really stuck was that Helms was a genuinely courteous and old-fashioned Southern gentleman. He also knew how and when to pour on the charm. Once in the 1990s, when he was the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, he addressed foreign dignitaries by promising to teach them how to speak Southern English. He began with phrases such as “Bless yo’ heart!” and “I doo declare!” He got a lot of laughs for that.
Once elected to the Senate, Helms quickly proved to be one of its most consequential members, even if many of his initiatives ended in failure. He was the first to tell anyone that he was loyal to principles before people, which is why he locked horns with moderate Republicans almost as much as with liberal Democrats. He preferred losing on principle than winning by compromise. Like Southern leaders during the Civil War, it was all about honor with Helms. And he never got discouraged after a defeat.
Helms was also preternaturally shrewd, knowing when to violate his own libertarian principles for political expediency, such as his lobbying for subsidies for tobacco farmers in North Carolina. A master politician, he understood his opponents’ weaknesses. For example, during the Martin Luther King Day debate, he linked his nemesis Ted Kennedy to the wiretapping of King which both the older Kennedy brothers had approved. A Republican colleague of Helms in the senate summed him up like so:
He has an innate craftiness and cleverness that’s stunning to watch. You can’t box him in—he’ll defang you when you get close. Anyone who sells him short is going to lose—and has. He’s amazing and formidable.
Helms also picked the right friends. He was always a big fan of Ronald Reagan, and when Reagan’s bid to unseat President Ford during the 1976 Republican Primary began to fizzle, it was Helms who came to the rescue. Helms encouraged Reagan to stay in the race, raised money for him, and blitzed the Tar Heel state with enough pro-Reagan television ads to swing the state in the Gipper’s favor. After that, Reagan became a real threat for Ford and nearly snatched the nomination. From then on, Ronald Reagan was a star in the Republican Party. Many insiders believe that he never would have emerged victorious in 1980 without the help and encouragement of Jesse Helms.
Helms also had a thing for Latin America. He operated what amounted to a secret state department there in order to stave off the spread of communism. He had operatives everywhere, and was better informed than most senators about what was going on. In his Cold War travails, Jesse Helms always kept his eye on the bigger picture, and understood rightly that, while both were bad, petty right wing dictators were much less of a threat than petty left wing ones were. Thus, he put his full support behind Latin American right wingers such as the Contras in Nicaragua and Augusto Pinochet in Chile. This often led to some ugly exchanges whenever these right wingers did reprehensible things.
Writes Eric Bates in Mother Jones in 1995:
The problem, say those familiar with his [Helms’] network, is that the information it provides is one-sided. “When I bring people to his office to tell him what we’ve seen, we aren’t even allowed in,” says Gail Phares, who leads delegations to Central America through Witness for Peace. “I remember when one delegation managed to get in and told his staff what they’d seen and heard in Nicaragua about the Contras killing doctors and nurses and children, their response was, ‘Well, they’re just Communists—they deserve to die.'”
Assuming that they actually said this and assuming that Helms had given his blessing for this kind of talk (and, knowing Helms, he probably did), this actually should endear Helms to the Alt Right today. Unlike liberals, he understood that the Cold War was a war, and that in war there are casualties. No entity in history killed and oppressed more white people than the Soviet Union . . . from the bloody Russian civil war, to the terror-famine in Ukraine, to the ethnic cleansing in the Caucasus, to the suppression of dissidents in Russia, to the invasions and control of Eastern Europe. The list goes on and on. What were liberals like these Witness for Peace people doing when the Soviets were killing doctors and nurses and children in those places? We know what Helms was doing during his time in the Senate, on the other hand. He was doing the hard work of resisting the Soviet Union at every turn. And if that meant working with some less-than-ethical individuals in Nicaragua, so be it.
Helms also had a way with words which no doubt sprung from his years as a writer and editor. He was a veritable font of put-downs and insightful witticisms. My favorite is when he likened President Jimmy Carter to a Cheshire cat. “. . . whenever you try to get a straight answer out of him or pin him down to something factual, everything disappears but the grin.” Jesse Helms had a unique ability to embarrass friends and enemies alike, which no doubt lent much to his formidable power and influence.
Another inspiring aspect of Helms’ legacy was his discipline and competence. He really did work for his constituents, and everyone in North Carolina knew it. I once met a person from North Carolina who told me as much. He was a musician from Chapel Hill, a liberal stronghold in the state. He told me he hated Helms but gave the man credit for his unswerving alacrity. The musician relayed a story about how his sister needed her passport approved during the federal government shutdown in the mid-1990s. Her situation was close to desperate and she contacted both her senators for help. She never heard back from the other senator, but she heard back from Helms who took care of her problem that very day. As a service senator, Jesse Helms was second to none.
So, looking back at Helms, what can the Alt Right take from him?
Well, front and center is his race realism. He might have been a bit cagey admitting it after a certain point, but he never wavered from it and never apologized for it. The man was as stalwart on race as you can get. In hindsight it seems almost a miracle that he survived in government at all, let alone thrived in it for 30 years. But he went beyond mere race realism. Jesse Helms also identified as white and made it acceptable for his constituents to do the same. When running against Nick Galifianakis in 1972 (an uncle of comedian Zach Galifianakis), he put up billboards which read “Vote for Jesse; He’s One of Us.” Galifianakis was the son of Greek immigrants and apparently wasn’t white enough for North Carolina in 1972. Helms beat him handily.
A more memorable example of Helms’ appeal to white identity appears in a brilliant TV spot he aired during his campaign against Harvey Gantt in 1990. Gantt was the black mayor of Charlotte and was expected to give Helms a stiff challenge for his senate seat. But Gantt, like most Democrats, supported affirmative action, and Helms dinged him for it with his famous “Hands” ad. “Hands” portrayed a pair of white hands crumpling a rejection letter with a morose narrator lamenting that “you” lost that job to a “less qualified minority.” This ad caused such apoplexy among liberals because that “you” referred exclusively to white people. This was an ad made by white people for white people who were acting in white interests in the majority-white North Carolina. If you weren’t white and you didn’t like it, Jesse Helms says too bad.
Another thing the Alt Right can take from the legacy of Jesse Helms is his use of technology. For a man who was so old-fashioned, he sure rode the multimedia cutting edge back in the day. I know we on the Alt Right think we’re awful clever with our memes and parodies and YouTube videos (and make no mistake, we are), but what Jesse Helms accomplished with radio, television, and direct mail campaigns 40 years ago is downright astonishing. He didn’t invent the television ad, but he was one of the first to take the shotgun approach to them. In his hotly contested race against Jim Hunt in 1984, he ran nearly 150 attack spots. Most of these were low-budget, 10-to-15 second clips attacking his opponent on a number of issues. Many featured Helms himself speaking directly into the camera. Now, Helms wasn’t exactly a good-looking man (he started his career in the senate at age 51), but his unshakable confidence in his principles (bolstered, no doubt, by his patriotism and his faith in God) gave him a charisma which I can only describe as fearsome. That he never lost an election shows how effectively these ads made people realize this as well.
If the Alt Right can find a sticking point with Helms it would be with either his nigh-militant Christianity or his inflexible homophobia. The Alt Right today tends to think that white demographic displacement is a much bigger issue.
Perhaps the most important thing we can take from Helms, aside from his race-realism, is that the man was a fighter. Politics for him was nothing less than a proxy for war. Nobody waged scorched earth political campaigns better than Jesse Helms. Nobody fought harder and nobody went lower. When the historians of the future talk about the meanest, the most acrimonious, the outright nastiest political campaigns in American history, first place will probably go to Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton in 2016 due to its vast exposure and impact. But second place, by a razor-thin margin, will have to go to Jesse Helms versus Jim Hunt in 1984. Nothing was off the table in that donnybrook.
Hunt was the popular Democrat governor of North Carolina, a political heavyweight in his home state, and a genuinely nice guy. If anyone was going to beat Senator Helms it would be Hunt. This is why Helms began his negative ads against Hunt eighteen months before election day. Think about it . . . eighteen months of constant negative ads. Hit ’em early and often was Jesse Helms’ credo and he lived down to it every step of the way against Jim Hunt. Carter Wrenn, one Helms’ chief allies, realized that the many negative aspects of Helms would be impossible to overcome. “The strategy that kind of evolved out of that was, ‘Look, we never can lift Helms up. We’ve got to bring Hunt down’,” he said. “It was really a brutal strategy, but it was really the only option we had left.”
Helms played the race card by associating Hunt with black huckster Jesse Jackson. He accused Hunt of wanting to harm America financially by supporting the Martin Luther King holiday. His campaign indirectly called Hunt a homosexual in a Chapel Hill newspaper. He also went after Hunt for his lack of a war record.
Hunt began his campaign in a more conventional fashion with mostly positive ads about himself. Once his lead in the polls began to slip, however, he realized he was in a dogfight and went straight for the jugular. He attacked Helms everywhere he could, with social security, school prayer, and taxes being the most prominent issues. Hunt also aired a grisly ad which linked Helms directly to Right-wing death squads in Central America, effectively accusing his opponent of murder. Still, it wasn’t enough.
As David Mark writes in Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning:
On the final day of the marathon campaign, Helms ﬂew throughout the state and tied Hunt to “homosexuals,” “labor union bosses,” and “crooks.” He said Hunt would win only if he got “an enormous bloc vote”—a code phrase for black voters. Hunt later said he realized the extent of the political beating he had taken on the morning of Election Day, when he was making last-minute voter appeals in Charlotte: A young mother, with her child in tow, told the devout Baptist, “Governor Hunt, we like you, but we’re voting for the Christian.”
The best way to remember Jesse Helms, especially as he relates to the Alt Right, is to think of him as a Right-wing avatar, the quintessential angry white man, the wielder of the Cross and the Constitution, and the possessor of a fire which is older than civilization itself. Eric Bates of Mother Jones said it best:
Many white North Carolinians are no doubt motivated to vote for Helms because of the almost primal fears he fans. “The principles we’re espousing have been around for thousands of years,” former aide James Lucier once explained, citing the “prepolitical” themes of God, family, property, and national pride.
That in a nutshell is the Alt Right. We may be new on the scene, but that which binds us — our race, our gods, our culture, our history — is older than the countries in which we live. When Jesse Helms was coming up, as he puts it, his race was his nation. America was still a nation-state of white men. Today, with non-white immigrants looking to subjugate us and displace us over time, our nation — our racial diaspora — will soon be under as much threat as Jesse Helms’ was during the Cold War. In looking back at this great man, I can only hope that when the times comes, we will take inspiration from Jesse Helms and fight as hard as he did, hitting them early and often.
William D. Snider, Helms and Hunt: The North Carolina Senate Race, 1984 (University of North Carolina Press, 1985).
David Mark, Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2006), chapter 6.
Eric Bates, “What You Need to Know about Jesse Helms,” Mother Jones, June 1995 Issue. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/1995/05/what-you-need-know-about-jesse-helms
Jesse Helms, Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesse_Helms