It’s Jesse Again
By Frye Gaillard
Vol. 6, No. 6, 1984, pp. 1-3
Relying on $14 million worth of accusation, racial invective and unrepentant lying, Sen. Jesse Helms has been reelected.
He defeated North Carolina’s popular governor, Jim Hunt, by fifty-one percent to forty-nine percent of the vote. Thus, a state once considered the South’s most progressive has offered–once again–a solid vote of confidence to one of the most radical spokesmen for the American rightwing.
For a time, it appeared the result would be different. Just over a year ago; Helms was trailing badly in most opinion polls. But like many a Southern politician with his back to the wall, he knew where to turn. Even in a state where the two largest cities have elected black mayors, and where one of them, Charlotte, has become a national model for successful school integration, the issue of race still cuts to the bone. So Helms seized upon the national debate over a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, and he began to sound the themes of thirty years ago.
“I think,” he declared on the floor of the Senate, “most Americans would feel that the participation of Marxists in the planning and direction of any movement taints that movement at the outset . . .
“The fact is that Dr. King’s program at least in part was conceived and aided by men and women who were not loyal to the United States. I refer specifically to members of the Communist Party of the United States, a revolutionary action organization funded and directed from Moscow. Although there is no record that Dr. King himself ever joined the Communist Party, he kept around him as his principal advisers and associates certain individuals who were taking their orders from a foreign power . . .
“King’s patterns of associations show that, at the least, he had no strong objection to communism, that he appears to have welcomed collaboration with Communists, and that
he and his principal vehicle, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, were subject to manipulation by Communists. The conclusion must be that Martin Luther King Jr. was either an irresponsible individual, careless of his own reputation . . ., or that he knowingly cooperated and sympathized with subversive and totalitarian elements under the control of a hostile foreign power.”
Those kinds of guilt by association echoes of the late Joe McCarthy are vintage Jesse Helms. With heavy racial overtones, they have been his style since his days as a radio commentator in the 1950’s; and unlike Strom Thurmond, George Wallace and others in the South who have toned down their rhetoric in response to what they perceived as changing realities, Helms is convinced that the old ways work.
He may be right. Following his posthumous assault on King, Helms rushed from nearly twenty percentage points behind, to a point or two ahead, in the public opinion polls. And from then until the voting on November 6, the issue of race remained a conspicuous theme in his campaign literature and fund-raising appeals.
One letter sent out by Helm’s National Congressional Club contained the message: “Black Power Means Black Rule and Violent Social Revolution. VOTE HELMS.” And on the front page of a newsletter paid for by the Helms for Senate Committee, there was a photo of Jim Hunt and Jesse Jackson with a headline reading: “Hunt Urges More Minority Registration.”
All of that is part of a remarkably consistent ideology that has made Helms, in the words of one Republican strategist in North Carolina, the “ideological point man” of the American right.
Helms’s position on the arms race is that America should win it. He opposes any form of arms control negotiations, l and his rhetoric concerning the Soviet Union makes Ronald Reagan’s seem mild. When the Soviets shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007, Helms declared, “If that is not an act of war, it will do until another comes along.”
He criticized the State Department and the Reagan Administration for their support of El Salvador’s President Duarte, charging that Duarte is a “Socialist.” He compares Roberto D’Aubisson’s ARENA party to local Chambers of Commerce in North Carolina, and he declared at a June press conference in Charlotte:
“I met D’Aubisson down in Hot Springs, Virginia, last September, and he didn’t strike me as the kind of fella who would be connected with death squads. So I went to all the intelligence agencies in town and said, ‘Tell me about the death squads.’ They don’t have any evidence. There is no evidence. If the ARENA party were in North Carolina, it would include most, if not all, of the free enterprise folks in the city of Charlotte . . .”
The thing that sets Jesse Helms apart, however, is not only his willingness to say such things, but the way he delivers his lines. He has that impressive gift of timing, that rare politician’s ability to size up an audience, to tap into the darker moods of alienation and anger through a single word or phrase, delivered in most cases with a derisive little smile: “Ted Kennedy . . .” He will say. Or “Jesse Jackson . . .” That’s all it takes, and the sudden rumbles of laughter quickly grow into cheers, as Helms launches his assault on the standard set of enemies: big-spending liberals, domestic radicals, communist expansionists in every part of the world.
There is a sarcasm and pugnacity that plays well in the South, that appeals to bitter stirrings from thirty years ago, when the region began to bear the frontal assaults of change.
Kathryn Fulton, editor of the North Carolina Inde-
pendent, argues that among the complicated ingredients in Jesse Helms’s appeal are his small town origins-a conception of himself and America shaped by his growing up in the town of Monroe, segregated, poor and pious, with the Depression and the triumph of World War II defining people’s thoughts on the way things should be. In that idealized world, which seems so threatened by the cataclysmic events of the last thirty years, there is no room for ambiguity or doubt, for troubling complexity or disturbing shades of gray.
Helms stands, in effect, as a beacon of certainty and a symbol of rage–lashing out at all the demons, the liberals, socialists, communists, feminists, atheists and integrationists, who have made our society such a disconcerting place.
And if on some level his supporters are troubled by the meanness and the Iying that are Helm’s standard fare, they are seduced nevertheless by the promise of victory: Total Victory over adversaries unambiguously threatening.
It is a powerful appeal.
Arrayed against it, however, was very potent candidacy of Governor Jim Hunt, who comes from the other side of Southern politics, from another whole strain in the psyche of his state. The strain is enbodied in a sporadic history of progressive politicians, of whom Frank Porter Graham in the 1940s and Terry Sanford in the 1960s were perhaps the most important. Both insisted on the moral necessity of change, and both appealed to the basic decency of North Carolinians.
Jim Hunt is a product of that tradition. He was raised on a farm in the eastern part of the state–109 acres of tobacco fields and rolling pastureland dotted with milk cows. His mother and father were ardent admirers of Franklin D. Roosevelt, as they battled their way through the vagaries of the Depression and learned to appreciate the helping hand of government. A federal conservation grant paid for the pond on their farm; their pine seedlings came from a federal project to combat soil erosion; and Rock Ridge High School, where Mrs. Hunt was a teacher, was rebuilt by the WPA after it burned to the ground.
The Hunts were staunch believers in the racial moderation of Frank Porter Graham, and they wept in 1950 when he lost a Senate race–defeated by the racist demagoguery of a Jesse Helms mentor, Willis Smith. Jim Hunt has never rebelled against the political legacy of his parents.
He is a politician who believes in the goodness of government, and he proved to be an effective and very popular governor.
He pushed for better roads and schools, the allocation of more money for social programs; and his most recent achievement was a $300-million educational package, including a fifteen percent pay raise for every teacher in North Carolina.
The difficulty for Governor Hunt (as for any North Carolinian of good conscience), lay in the degree to which Jesse Helms has been able to push the state’s politics to the right–setting the agenda and defining the issues. Add to this the fact that Jim Hunt has always been a cautious politician, sometimes cautious to excess.
For the last two years of his governorship Hunt became extremely protective of his right flank. He failed to speak and act as unequivocally as many of his supporters would have liked on social issues. He presided over two executions. And, as he began to address issues in the senate race, Hunt positioned himself as far to the right as he could–basically endorsing the Reagan Administration’s support for the contras in Nicaragua, and Administration’s plans to build the MX missile and the B-1 bomber.
Each of these moves by Hunt, while perhaps stategically defensible in terms of appealing to the broadest spectrum of North Carolina voters, helped to undermine the energy and enthusiasm of some of his once-ardent supporters. Many other voters began to lose their clear sense of just what Jim Hunt–and the best of the state’s historical Democratic legacy–stood for. With tragic irony, it was Hunt, not Helms, who began to appear as the less-principled politician.
All the caution worked to Hunt’s disadvantage. As things turned out, it hardly mattered what the Governor’s publicly stated advocacies were. Helms had $14 million to buy TV time to distort them.
Through an assault of television commercials, Helms managed to convince a majority of North Carolinians of something demonstrably untrue: that Hunt was a big-spending liberal–a Mondale clone who, if elected would raise their federal taxes by the remarkably specific sum of $157 a month.
In many of his commercials, Helms simply lied, putting a dollar figure that he knew was midleading on tax proposals that were not even Hunt’s. He also lied, flatly and with no hint of shame, about the details of his own record. “I haven’t proposed to do away with social security,” the senator said, though in fact, he had proposed replacing Social Security with a privately managed system. In a television debate, he accused Hunt of favoring elimination of tax deductions on home mortgage loans, which turned out to be a compound lie. Not only had Hunt never advocated such a plan, Helms had.
Later, Helms denied introducing anti-abortion legislation that would also have precluded certain forms of contraception, when in fact, that was precisely what he had done.
Astonishly enough, the lying prevailed and Helms was elected.
Frye Gaillard is an editorial page writer for the Charlotte Observer.