Three myths about Jesse Helms (and what they say about us)

The following commentary appeared in this week's Institute e-newsletter. To sign up and have it delivered free to your email inbox, sign up in the box in the upper right hand corner.

What does one say at the funeral of a bigot? Politicians and pundits have been grappling with that question since the passing of Sen. Jesse Helms on July 4, and the collective reaction to Helms' death speaks volumes about the state of race relations and social progress in our country.

Many in the media -- and the stream of politicians who lept to praise Helms and his legacy -- down-played, ignored or even denied Helms' prejudices; the Wall Street Journal, always fans of the Senator, resolutely stated "Helms himself was no racist."

To say Sen. Helms held deep prejudices against many -- especially African-Americans and gays and lesbians -- isn't a matter of opinion; it's all part of the historical record. As Gary Robertson of the Associated Press reported, Helms -- unlike other hold-overs from the segregationist era -- never changed his views in opposing civil rights. Up until his last Senate campaign, stirring up racial division -- along with homophobia and anti-communism -- was a centerpiece of Helms' political M.O.

As the quintessentially establishment columnist David Broder noted upon Helms' retirement in 2001, the senator who up into the 1990s was giggling at the word "nigger" and saying that "homosexuals are weak, morally sick wretches" was "the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country."

Tap-dancing around Helms' lingering prejudices was one of several ways the media helped perpetuate a mythology of the senator at odds with his real life and legacy. Here are two more myths about Helms the media has relentlessly spread over the last two weeks:

HELMS GOT ELECTED BECAUSE HE WAS A "STRAIGHT TALKER": One of the media's favorite myths is that Sen. Helms was voted to serve as North Carolina's senator for 30 years and drew admiration from certain quarters around the country because he "called it like he saw it" -- he didn't mince words, he was honest about where he stood.

In today's age of poll-driven politics and talking hair-dos in office, any leader that speaks with candor and conviction is certainly refreshing. But it would be a delusion to think such honesty was the reason for Helms' popularity.

As Sen. Barack Obama's minister Rev. Jeremiah Wright learned, "calling it like you see it" is not always welcomed by the media and public. Helms' divisive "straight talk" was popular then -- and praised by some now -- largely because it tapped into the resentments and prejudices of the white majority.

And when "honesty" wasn't enough, Helms was all too willing to resort to bullying and dirty tricks. In 1996, the Justice Department famously admonished Helms for mailing 125,000 fliers to African-American precincts warning that voters risked imprisonment if they cast ballots.

At his core, Helms was a shrewd politician who realized that scapegoating African-Americans, gays and lesbians, and the "liberal media" was an effective way to mobilize his base and present himself -- and all white voters -- as besieged victims. It's likely that he believed many of the reactionary positions he publicly advocated. But Helms the strategic politician also knew that by cultivating a straight-talk persona he could shift attention from the regressive content of what he was saying to a defense of his right to "speak his mind" -- but his fans and voters got the real message.

HELMS WAS A UNIQUE ICONOCLAST: Another centerpiece of the Helms mythology is that the North Carolina senator was a one-of-a-kind politician, the "last of a dying breed," standing apart from his Senate colleagues and the march of history.

Helms' antics and positions did on many occasions put him at the far-right extremes of political debate. But he was by no means a marginal, fringe politician, and such a portrayal ignores Helms' ongoing popularity and his central role in U.S. politics for three decades.

For example, the National Congressional Club -- founded in 1972 to pay off Helms' campaign debt -- was one of the most powerful vehicles of Republican power. In the 1980s, the NCC was the second-largest PAC in the country, amassing a war chest and creating a political machine that helped dozens of GOP candidates win office, including Ronald Reagan.

Helms also had a real base and following. North Carolina voters put Helms in office for five terms. Sometimes the margins were small, but at the end of the day millions of white voters picked Helms over moderate alternatives from a white Jim Hunt to a black Harvey Gantt, tainting North Carolina's image as a forward-thinking, enlightened state. Hundreds of donors across the country poured money into his campaigns; the nearly $14 million he raised in his 1984 contest was a record at the time.

Indeed, Helms' influence went beyond North Carolina. He was a driving force behind the Republicans' "Southern Strategy" that consciously used race and racism to gain power in the South. Hastings Wyman, who watched Helms' rise while working as a Republican strategist next door in South Carolina, honestly reflected on what Republicans like Sen. Helms and his compatriot, Sen. Strom Thurmond, were doing in Alexander Lamis' book, Southern Politics in the 1990s:

[A] major component of the Republican resurgence in the Old Confederacy was a racist reaction to the civil rights changes that were coming to the South. Not just a racist reaction that Republicans, in the right place at the right time, could take advantage of, but often a reaction consciously encouraged -- no, fanned -- by the GOP itself.

Racism, often purposely inflamed by many southern Republicans, either because we believed it or because we thought it would win votes, was a major tool in the building of the new Republican party in the South.

It is a deep irony that many of the political leaders and media commentators who praise Jesse Helms' "honesty" so readily trade in myths, rather than facts, in remembering his political legacy. In a year when many are wondering whether an African-American man can win the presidency, we clearly need more, not less, honesty in confronting the state of race and social progress in our country.