You Don’t Know Jesse

The coverage of Senator Jesse Helms' death has largely ignored unflattering facts about his life and racial attitude.

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Senator Jesse Helms celebrates winning his fifth term to the U.S. Senate in 1996. (AP/Alan Marler)
Senator Jesse Helms celebrates winning his fifth term to the U.S. Senate in 1996. (AP/Alan Marler)

When Senator Jesse Helms, former Republican of North Carolina, retired in 2001, David Broder—the “dean” of the Washington press corps and unerring voice of conventional wisdom—had this to say:

“Those who believe that the ‘liberal press’ always has its knives sharpened for Republicans and conservatives must have been flummoxed by the coverage of Sen. Jesse Helms’s announcement last week that he will not run for reelection next year in North Carolina. The reporting on his retirement was circumspect to the point of pussyfooting…

“What really set Jesse Helms apart is that he was the last prominent, unabashedly white racist politician in this country—a title that one hopes will now be permanently retired. A few editorials and columns came close to saying that, but much of the press’ squeamishness in characterizing Helms for what he is suggests an unwillingness to confront the reality of race in our national life.”

Helms passed away on July 4 at age 86. Coverage of his departure from this realm was, alas, awfully similar to that of his departure from the Senate, and the nation lost an opportunity to learn what it had learned since he ruled much of its discourse.

When the history of Helms’ role in American political life is written, it will note, along with his qualities of courtly good manners and personal warmth, some of the following:

  • Helms entered the political arena in 1950 as a researcher for a segregationist candidate who appealed to voters with these sentiments: “White people, wake up before it is too late,” said one ad. “Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and your daughters, in your mills and factories? Frank Graham favors mingling of the races.”
  • Following this (successful) campaign and a brief stint as a congressional staffer, Helms returned to North Carolina to battle integration efforts with fervor—for example, calling the University of North Carolina the “University of Negroes and Communists” and proposing a wall to seal off the campus.
  • Helms termed Martin Luther King Jr. a Communist and a pervert, and characterized the civil rights as a bunch of “moral degenerates.” As the heroic non-violent marchers gained power, drawing primarily on black churches nationwide, Helms proclaimed that, “The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that’s thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic, and interfere with other men’s rights.”
  • Helms gained his seat in the U.S. Senate in 1972 by defeating a Greek-American with the slogan, “Vote for Helms—He’s One of Us!” He employed a similar slogan versus his African-American challenger in 1990 and 1996, Harvey Gantt, including the infamous “white hands” ad, designed to exploit white resentment over U.S. affirmative action policies.

The litany of Helms’s senate “accomplishments” include: (failed) obstruction of the creation of Martin Luther King Day, opposition to the extension of the Voting Rights Act, and support for the terroristic/apartheid regime in South Africa, among many, many other milestones.

While Helms was often praised for his good humor, it’s not clear that this extended to his interaction with black people. For instance, when Helms encountered Carol Mosley Braun, the first African-American woman to serve in the Senate, in the elevator, he told a colleague: “Watch me make her cry. I’m going to make her cry. I’m going to sing ‘Dixie’ until she cries.” Then, emphasizing the lines about how “good” things were before the Civil War ended slavery, Helms sang “Dixie.” Helms also turned his back on Nelson Mandela when he visited Congress in 1994. Such are the charms of this world-renowned “Southern gentleman.”

It’s important to note that Helms was not just a gadfly; he was enormously effective. He served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1994 until his retirement, and redirected U.S. foreign policy in the service of his philosophy. It is therefore fitting that, upon his death, he was dubbed a “conservative icon” by Bob Dole and “one of the giants of the ‘80s and ‘90s in the United States Senate” by Trent Lott.

So how did the members of mainstream media describe this career following his death?

Many newspaper obituaries did mention much of the above, but they tended to lean heavily on cliché and euphemism in order to whitewash the unpleasant details. The AP’s Whitney Woodward and David Epso began their story by saying, “Former Sen. Jesse Helms, who built a career along the fault lines of racial politics and battled liberals, Communists and the occasional fellow Republican during 30 conservative years in Congress, died on the Fourth of July.” (Recall that this is the man who, during an appearance on “Larry King Live,” merely thanked a caller who praised him “for everything you’ve done to help keep down the niggers.”)

Richard Prince of the Maynard Institute has compiled a list of newspaper articles that would not utter the term “racist” in their coverage of Helms’s life. On TV, anchors and reporters were no less reticent. On NBC’s “Today Show,” anchor Savannah Guthrie noted that Helms was a “conservative icon,” and reporter Martin Savidge mentioned race just once, citing the belief that “critics branded Helms a bigot for his racially tinged ads.”

Charles Gibson, on “ABC’s World News Tonight,” summarized Helms like this: “Whether you loved him, and he had many admirers, or detested him, and he had many detractors, there’s no denying Jesse Helms was one of the most powerful political figures of the late 20th Century and charted the course of the rise of conservatism. Many say there never would have been a Reagan presidency without Helms.” Gibson mentioned Helms’ opposition to the Civil Rights Act and “a famous ad, opposing affirmative action,” but that was all the context—and information—viewers were offered.

Guest anchor Russ Mitchell on “The CBS Evening News” introduced a Bob Schieffer report by explaining: “Jesse Helms, the fiery former senator from North Carolina… died today at the age of 86 after suffering from dementia in recent years. The White House released a statement saying America lost a great public servant and true patriot today. During his more than half century in politics, Jesse Helms led the charge for Southern conservatives and famously did not mind if he rubbed a lot of folks the wrong way.” Schieffer did mention that Helms opposed “racial quotas” and that “critics said he built his election campaigns around fear,” as if that were all there was to it.

On CNN, Ed Henry eulogized the deceased by noting, “Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on the Fourth of July. Now Jesse Helms has, too. But the fact of the matter is that, for better or for worse, he was also a lightning rod.” Henry again elided serious mention of Helms’s views and actions on race, saying only that “More than anything, Jesse Helms was conservative, a vehement opponent of communism and an ardent supporter of state rights.” Henry mentioned the Gantt ad, but said only that “Democrats labeled [it] a racist attack.” Henry did actually introduce the word “racist” again into his piece, but only in a clip of Helms saying “Were the southerners racist? I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know how you define a racist.” (CNN would have done better to put one of their contributors, Roland Martin, on air instead — he has written a piece for titled “Don’t sanitize Helms’ racist past.”

Jim Angle prepared a package on Helms’s death for Fox News which again ignored virtually every biographical detail that might reveal Helms’s extremist positions on race, and said only that “some critics argued Helms was a racist, but long-time associates insist he was motivated by principle.” So it goes.

Within the (openly) conservative media, Helms was declared a national hero. National Review’s Mark Levin mourned the “Death of a Conservative Great,” The Wall Street Journal’s John Fund said that “If Ronald Reagan was the sunny and optimistic face of modern conservatism, the uncompromisingly defiant exemplar of it was Jesse Helms,” and a blogger at the American Conservative wrote that, “On Capitol Hill, conservatives had no finer champion than Jesse Helms, the longtime Republican senator from North Carolina.”

It’s hardly news that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it. But as we enter what is certain to be an historic, but racially charged presidential election, it is hardly an encouraging sign that our media have so much difficulty uttering clear and objective truths about so divisive a figure. Let’s hope that this coverage represented mere squeamishness about uttering unflattering facts about the recently deceased. It would be shame and scandal for the media to forget what the famously “moderate” David Broder knew seven years ago.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking.

George Zornick is a New York-based writer.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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