The Charlotte Observer is moving to a new building, and in the process of moving, political reporter Jim Morrill uncovered a number of letters between then-U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms and the publisher and editors of the time (roughly 1978-93). The Observer’s spin on these letters is that they reveal a cordial, even humorous side of Helms.
And you know what? That’s probably true.
And you know what else? Reinhard Heydrich, the notorious Nazi SS officer considered second in bloodthirstiness only to Hitler himself, also had a cordial side. Hitler himself was a vegetarian and loved children. Big woop.
For all his public embrace of “Christian values,” Jesse Helms got his start by purveying white-lightning-quality racism in his editorials for Raleigh’s WRAL-TV. His bigotry was his brand, and he was proud of it. But worse than that, although he didn’t pioneer it, he perfected the Republican art of punching down against the least among us — the poor, women, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ folks — not just for political advantage but for the pure, unadulterated meanness of it. For every instance of his ostensible cordiality, there were 20 instances in which he stomped Christ’s Second Great Commandment into the dust.
What’s worse is that his brand of punch-down politics has now become de rigeur among Republican politicians, not least because the GOP base has grown to expect it. From Trump to Cruz to Kasich to the leaders of the N.C. General Assembly who passed HB2 (which punches not only LGBTQ folk but also anyone who might have been discriminated against), Republicans now believe that they must attack the most vulnerable to be seen as tough and therefore trustworthy. That, not his cordiality or his professed Christianity, is his real legacy.
Helms has been dead for a while now, and a political generation has come of age to whom Helms is a story, not a person. And stories can change. But the person never did. Helms died as he had lived, an evil, hateful, degenerate son of a bitch. Remember that, because it’s important to understand how we got where we are today.