I recently finished William Link’s Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008). I’ll be taking it back to the library tomorrow, so I want to write about it while I still have it with me.
This book didn’t knock my socks off, but I still enjoyed it. What is my impression of Jesse Helms now that I’ve read it? It’s mixed. And, ironically, the things that repel me are also the things that attract me. As I read the book, Helms struck me as self-righteous in the sense that he projected an attitude of “How dare you challenge me!” He sunk low in the political gutter in his attacks on his opponents. He could be somewhat of a bully, for he played a significant role in a well-funded conservative machine that tried to get its way, no matter what.
And, yet, his strong will is admirable. He didn’t care what anyone thought about him, even when he was in a tiny minority. He boldly challenged Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and both Bushes, and they all saw him as a force to be reckoned with. And, surprisingly, he got some legislative victories, often against heavy odds. He knew how to obstruct what he didn’t like, sneak in what he did like, and (more importantly, for him) force elected officials to take sides on controversial issues. And, on many occasions, because a lot of Americans are rather conservative, the side that the Senators chose was his. Jesse Helms was a one-man army.
Link’s prologue is telling. It’s entitled “The Two Faces of Jesse Helms.” Its thesis is that, although Helms is known as a hard-nosed conservative ideologue, he had a human side as well. A survey of 1,200 staffers and Capitol Hill employees rated him as one of the nicest Senators. He genuinely cared for his staffers, and he continually helped his North Carolina constituents, something even his political enemies admired. He viewed himself as a public servant, resisting many of the perks that came with being a Senator. Overall, he was a low-key guy. He was a tee-totaller, he loved Little House on the Prairie, and he was a devoted husband, father, and grandfather. He even adopted a boy with cerebral palsy.
Probably what is most controversial about him is his record on race. His political friends were segregationists. As a media commentator, he was critical of the civil rights movement, Brown v. the Board of Education, and civil rights legislation. Critics accused him of using racist sub-texts in his political campaigns. Yet, he did not view himself as a racist. He thought that African-Americans actually liked segregation, and that all these outsider activists were agitating the situation. For him, whites and blacks could arrive at a mutual solution to racial conflict, without agitation or outside federal interference. While he voted against membership for a black man in his local church, he said that he had no problem worshipping with people of other races: he just didn’t like people coming in to start trouble. He related that he was friends with a lot of black people, particularly Capitol Hill employees. James Meredith served on his Senate staff for a time. And, through all of this, Helms said he couldn’t understand why a lot of African-Americans didn’t like him.
Overall, the book was liberal, yet respectful. It reminded me of Lou Cannon’s books on Reagan. Link disagreed with Helms on a variety of issues, and he pointed out errors in many of Helms’ statements and stories. He also depicted Helms as somewhat of a racist. Yet, he admired Helms’ political talent, tenacity, and tender humanity. One thing Helms wasn’t, and that’s boring.
The most touching part of the book relates to Helms’ relationship with Bono, the legendary U-2 musician. Bono was concerned about hunger and AIDS in Africa, and he took special care to reach out to conservative politicians, such as John Kasich and Jesse Helms. Several of Bono’s friends warned him about conservatives, but Bono’s stance about them was simple: they’re Christians, they follow Jesus, and so, of course, they’ll be concerned about the poor, the sick, and the outcast.
You couldn’t imagine two people who were more different: Helms, the old Senator who didn’t listen to rock music, and Bono, with his colorful clothing and sunglasses. But Bono told Helms about the suffering in Africa. In Bono’s recollection, Helms cried when he saw the pictures of starving children. That is not surprising, for Helms (like Reagan) was often quick to act when he became aware of an individual’s suffering. He opposed the Panamanian government, for example, after seeing pictures of someone who was tortured and killed in that country. “He’s a religious man,” Bono recalled, “so I told him that 2,103 verses of Scripture pertain to the poor and Jesus speaks of judgment only once–and it’s not about being gay or sexual morality, but about poverty.”
Still, Helms remained a conservative. He continued to oppose foreign aid that relied on inefficient bureaucracies and funneled the money to corrupt foreign governments. For Helms, giving the aid to private charities or directly to people who needed it was the better option. And Helms maintained his strong opposition to the homosexual lifestyle.
I admire Helms, whatever his flaws. And, yet, for me, the hero of the book is Bono. He chose to reach out to people who were different from him, appealing to what was good and noble in their own worldviews. And, in the process, numerous people in Africa got helped.