The AP has reported that Senator Jesse Helms has died. It’s ironic that he passed away on July 4, for he was definitely a patriot.
I have written about him a little more extensively in my post, Righteous Warrior, by William A. Link, in which I discuss Link’s biography of this controversial Senator.
A lot of my readers won’t like this little eulogy, since they view Helms as a racist and a race-baiter. They’re entitled to their opinion. I’m not going to claim for one second that I agree with everything Jesse Helms did (assuming we have all the facts about that in the first place). And that reminds me: I still want to review Bruce Bartlett’s book on the historical racism of the Democratic Party (Woodrow Wilson, FDR, JFK, and LBJ included).
But I do feel a need to honor Jesse. When I was a young lad learning about politics, I was beginning to identify with the conservative end of the political spectrum. And I noticed something as I looked at Senate votes and roll-calls: a lot of amendments and legislation that I liked bore his name. Pro-life legislation. Pro-school prayer legislation. So I guess that’s how I first heard the name “Jesse Helms.”
But he was just a name on a list to me until I had a discussion with my junior high school social studies teacher, who was a liberal. I had written a paper defending the South African government (see “Where Were You During Apartheid?” and James the Afrikaaner? for details), and he wanted to discuss it with me during our lunch hour. I had read a lot of John Birch literature, so I tended to call all sorts of people Communists, including our one-worlder President at the time, President George Herbert Walker Bush.
“Well, Jesse Helms says Bush is doing a good job. Is Jesse Helms a Communist?,” my teacher asked. “Yes,” I said. “Oh, come on! Jesse Helms is the most anti-Communist guy in the world!”
And indeed he was, though not always in the conventional sense. As a child, I enjoyed reading the Opposing Viewpoints series, for it featured articles from both sides of various issues. One book from that series was Central America, which discussed Reagan’s anti-Communist policies in the region. One article was entitled, “U.S. Is Promoting Democracy in Central America.” For that, the editors used a stirring speech by President Reagan–I believe the one in which he called the Nicaraguan contras “the moral equivalent of our founding fathers.” To my surprise, however, the article “U.S. Is Not Promoting Democracy in Central America” was a speech by Jesse Helms. I would’ve expected them to quote a liberal rather than Jesse Helms, but, apparently, he too had problems with the Reagan Administration’s policies. He supported the more right-wing elements of El Salvador, viewing them as a better bulwark against Communism than the moderate forces we were financing. And, if memory serves me correctly, he also thought that Violeta Chamorro of Nicaragua was too left-wing.
I appreciated Jesse Helms whenever he made the news. One thing that made him a household name was his opposition to the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that was using our tax dollars to fund smut and blasphemy. I recall Murphy Brown sarcastically asking, “Do you think Jesse Helms would consider Picasso fit to frame?” People accused Jesse Helms of supporting censorship and trampling all over the First Amendment, but that wasn’t true. For him, the First Amendment allows artists to paint and photograph whatever they want. But it does not require us to pay for it.
His stance on AIDS was also controversial, and he changed his mind on that when he became older. I remember him criticizing funding for AIDS research because he said that homosexuals brought it on themselves through their “disgusting, revolting behavior.” I could see his point, somewhat. There are all sorts of diseases that are out there, including cystic fibrosis. Why should AIDS research get so much money? And homosexual behavior was a big factor in the spread of the AIDS virus. Facts are not always politically-correct, but they’re true!
But I admire how he united with Bono to fight the disease. Part of that flowed from his compassionate heart. Part of it may have been because he knew he would die eventually and wanted God’s favor (even though he as a Baptist probably believed in free grace). And he was getting up there in years. I was actually expecting to write this eulogy pretty soon!
I had Jesse Helms’ autographed picture. When I was at DePauw University, my liberal poli sci professor was bashing Jesse Helms. The next morning, I put my Jesse Helms picture to my face, walked into my professor’s office, and said with a fake Southern drawl, “Aah heard you were criticizing me yesterday!” My professor didn’t laugh. He just said, “I can’t believe you can support that fascist.” He still wrote me a good letter of recommendation for Harvard, though!
Some of you may like Jesse Helms. Some of you may hate him. But I as a conservative feel a need to honor him, for he spend much of his life fighting for the conservative cause.