So, why should we read yet another biography of Jesse Helms? Righteous Warrior by William Link plows over familiar ground, detailing how Helms was involved in the most racist- and red-baiting campaign in modern N.C. history, the Dr. Frank Porter Graham-Willis Smith Democratic primary of 1950. Though Helms always denies accusations that he instigated the worst of these deceitful tactics, Link en-courages the reader to examine his later campaigns.
In his first U.S. Senate race in ’72 against Nick Galifinakis, a U.S. Congressman of Greek descent, he brandished the slogan, “Jesse: He’s One of Us.” That Galifinakis was a Marine Corp veteran and Duke Law graduate did not prevent Jesse from questioning his Americanism and patriotism. Carolina residents may recall the controversial “white hands” TV ad, in which the Helms campaign falsely accused opponent Harvey Gantt of favoring minority hiring quotas. After a look-see at such ugly stuff, Link suggests, readers may draw their own conclusions about the accuracy of Jesse’s denials. Link also probes Helms’ cozy relationships with nearly all Central and South American dictators, such as General Pinochet of Chile and Robert D’Aubuisson of El Salvador. Despite the mountains of evidence these neo-fascists secured and maintained their power through mass murder, repression, and terror, N.C.’s senior Senator defended them and their death squads because he believed they were buffers against Communism. Even when a Socialist government was democratically elected, as in Chile, Helms would label it “Communist” and then support its opponents, often militaristic authoritarians.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing episodes is how Helms exploited the Soviet downing of KAL 007 in 1983 as a political opportunity (KAL 007 was a Korean passenger plane the Soviets insisted they thought was a spy plane). The Senator had met two pre-school age girls in the airport before they boarded the fateful flight, and he gradually embellished the story of their brief encounter throughout that election year. Eventually Helms claimed he had played a child’s game with the two girls, witnessed their mother read Bible stories to them, and that the youngsters had blown kisses to him as they boarded the plane. Jesse’s conscience permitted him to use this much exaggerated and tear-jerking story in fund-raising letters in his 1984 Senate campaign as well as on the campaign trail.
Link suggests that despite all his attention-getting bluster, Helms was not as effective as he appeared, as many of the issues he fought for over his many years in the Senate are no longer on the public radar. For examples, he opposed Martin Luther King Day, and he advocated putting prescribed prayer back in the public schools. In fairness to Helms, Link also reports how the former Senator’s office admirably served his individual constituents and how Helms himself genuinely loved an adopted son, Charles, a victim of celebral palsy. Indeed, Helms seems to possess a generous, pleasant, and even courtly personal side that conflicts with his public persona. In addition, Helms did seem to soften in his later years regarding his views on poverty in third-world countries, homosexuality, and the AIDS epidemic. However, Link hints these modifications in his positions are mere footnotes in a political career marred by intolerance and unapologetic appeals to racism.
I read Righteous Warrior because a couple of questions had always nagged me about ole Jesse. First, how did Jesse get to be Jesse? Second, how could many North Carolinians who voted for progressive candidates like Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt support him, too? Link indicates Jesse got to be Jesse while a commentator at WRAL-TV in Raleigh in the 1960s. On several of his Viewpoints editorials, Helms accused a young UNC English instructor of attempting to morally corrupt his freshmen by teaching the classic poem, “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell. Even after Helms knew an investigation that included interviewing each student had cleared the teacher of any wrongdoing, Helms continued to repeat the unfounded allegations on his TV program. Link concludes when Jesse realized he could get away with such falsehoods on the public airways, he was encouraged to continue the practice. How Jesse enjoyed getting votes from some folks who also supported more progressive candidates is partially explained in a poll taken after the 1984 Helms-Hunt Senate race. One question asked if Helms had run against Hunt for governor instead of Hunt running against Helms for Senate, how would they have voted? Surprisingly, Hunt would have won in double digits! Why? The poll concluded: “Voters liked having an ideologue for senator and an effective manager for governor.” I suspect many fellow North Carolinians — both native Tar Heels and transplants — have similar questions that may have nagged them about this politician who represented us in the U.S. Senate for thirty years. Righteous Warrior is 643 pages of solid data, interestingly told, about one of the longest serving U.S. Senators in history. Furthermore, Link’s biography reminds us that many of the issues Helms exploited during his three-decades will be with us in the 2008 election and beyond. May the Almighty have mercy on us!
4 Out of 4 Stars
Reviewed By: Mike Shinn, Academic Learning Center