Jesse Helms

Christopher Hitchens says most of what needs to be said about the wretched Jesse Helms, the racist former senator from North Carolina who died July 4.

But aside from his invariably-wrong positions on virtually every matter of public policy during his 30 years in the Senate, Helms was simply a mean-spirited bastard:

After Carol Mosely-Braun (D.-Ill.), the only African-American senator, defeated a bill that would have extended a federal patent on a Confederate flag insignia, Pat Buchanan accused her of “putting on an act” by linking the Confederacy to slavery…

Soon after the Senate vote on the Confederate flag insignia, Sen. Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.) ran into Mosely-Braun in a Capitol elevator. Helms turned to his friend, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah), and said, “Watch me make her cry. I’m going to make her cry. I’m going to sing ‘Dixie’ until she cries.” He then proceeded to sing the song about the good life during slavery to Mosely-Braun (Gannett News Service, 9/2/93; Time, 8/16/93).

(Mosely-Braun did not cry, but responded, with extraordinary restraint: “Senator Helms, your singing would make me cry if you sang ’Rock of Ages.’”)

Hitchens writes: “I make no apology for calling him a provincial redneck, because that, to be fair to him once more, was how he thought of himself and even described himself.”

I think Helms flattered himself; the word “redneck,” after all, was originally applied to poor southern whites who worked in the fields all day and got sunburned necks. Helms seems to have had a relatively comfortable life: he was the son of a small-town police chief, graduated from college and– before his political career– worked for newspapers, radio and TV.

It’s worth noting that Helms was not overwhelmingly popular in North Carolina; the five times he was elected to the Senate, he never got more than 54.5 percent of the vote. In two elections the black former mayor of Charlotte, Harvey Gantt, came reasonably close to beating him.

My sister and her husband, who live in Greensboro, NC, for years had a bumper sticker on their car reading: “We Vote Against Helms.” They weren’t the only ones who voted so. I wish a few more had joined them.