In Case You Missed It
Boulderganic Fall 2009
Student Guide 2009
Boulder Weekly Sweet 16 Anniversary
Summer Scene 2009
Best of Boulder 2009
Annual Manual 2009
Newspaper of the Future
Kids Camp Guide 2009
Wedding Marketplace 09
Student Guide 2008
Best of Boulder 2008
Annual Manual 2008
Join Our Mailing List
|July 10-17, 2008
Back to Letters
The last southern jackass, dead at 86
by Ben Corbett
Don’t photograph a penis; don’t paint a breast / Don’t write about the truth because it might offend Jess / And don’t tell it like it is, and don’t show where it’s at / ’Cause Jesse don’t like it and that is that
—Loudon Wainwright III “Jesse Don’t Like It”
Against gay rights, and funding for the arts / tried to cancel PBS and tear Big Bird apart. / Cut AIDS funding, corporate welfare for the rich / He’s a shameless money grubber, he’s a two-dollar bitch.
—MC Hawking “Why Don’t Jesse Helms Just Hurry Up and Die?”
There have been 248 U.S. senators in the 18 years and five months that I have been there. None — none — have been more capable than Dan Quayle.
—Jesse Helms, 1991
If it weren’t for Trent Lott, the Vitalis 44 company would have gone belly-up long ago. Rumor has it that, now in retirement, the former U.S. senator from Mississippi even bathes in heated vats of the hair lube each Sunday while watching 1960s reruns of Oral Roberts televised sermons. Lott’s December 2007 resignation, together with last week’s death of Jesse Helms, marked the end of an era for the fabled “Old South” — a season of graft, corruption and racism unequaled in American history.
Jesse Helms cut a controversial figure during his senatorial tenure, and today he’s lying in a premium model casket, hands cradled stiffly over his sternum, those small, venom-heaving lips that sewed confusion for decades now pinned forever shut. Best known for employing dirty tactics to win elections, Helms earned the biggest feather in his cap during his 1990 senate reelection campaign against Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Harvey Gantt, a black candidate, when Helms mailed out 125,000 postcards to voters in black precincts, promising jail time if they went to the polls. That same year, Helms ran the infamous TV advertisement where a pair of white hands crumbles up an employment pink slip with the voice-over pining, “You needed that job, and you were the best qualified, but they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?” Who knows, but the ad certainly wasn’t surprising.
“What is unique about Helms — and from my viewpoint unforgivable — is his willingness to pick at the great wound of American history, the legacy of slavery and segregation, and to inflame racial resentment against African Americans,” wrote Washington Post columnist David Broder in August 2001 when Helms announced his retirement.
Helms’ career in politics began on the race ticket, when in 1950, the then-Democrat took a job promoting candidate Willis Smith in the North Carolina primary. In an advertisement he designed, Helms wrote, “White people, wake up before it is too late. Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and your daughters, in your mills and factories?” A photo within the ad was altered to make it appear that the wife of Frank Graham, Willis’ opponent, was dancing with a black man. It was the type of subliminal voter manipulation that Helms would employ throughout his career during political campaigns, whether his own or his enemies’ which were numerous. From 1960-1972, before running for and winning his seat in the senate, Helms did nightly political broadcasts on Raleigh’s WRAL radio, WRAL-TV, paving the way for future sensationalist commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and his adversary Michael Moore.
“Look carefully into the faces of the people participating,” he said in 1968 during one of his five-minute commentaries against Vietnam War protesters. “What you will see, for the most part, are dirty, unshaven, often crude young men and stringy-haired awkward young women who cannot attract attention any other way.” (Har, har, har.)
Later, Helms took up a campaign against erotic and anti-religious art, particularly that of Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Annie Sprinkle and others in the 1980s. While presenting a bill that would end funding for the Lyndon Johnson-formed National Endowment for the Arts, Helms pined, “If people want to go into a men’s room and write dirty words on the wall, let them furnish their own crayons. Let them furnish their own wall. Don’t ask the taxpayers to support it.”
Yet in 1994, the FEC found Helms guilty of accepting $700,000 in illegal campaign contributions after a 10-year, taxpayer-funded investigation that netted a mere $25,000 settlement. What amounted to a 30-year career bought and paid for by the tobacco corporations, Sen. Helms offers the worst example of American politics and its foul underbelly, almost singly responsible for making fear tactics and insidious voter manipulation viable tools in winning elections and passing laws — the same types of manipulation that future politicians would use to gain popular support to invade sovereign countries and launch unjustified wars.
In memory of Helms, George W. Bush called him “an unwavering champion of those struggling for liberty,” and “a kind, decent, humble man.”
back to top