In senatorial years, five terms equals three decades, so he had a good run. During his career, he promoted racism:
"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?"He voted against funding for AIDS research and treatment because patients got sick as a result of what he called "deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct":
"We've got to have some common sense about a disease transmitted by people deliberately engaging in unnatural acts."He was charming when it came to promoting profitable addiction* among citizens of Third World countries:
"I was with some Vietnamese recently, and some of them were smoking two cigarettes at the same time. That's the kind of customers we need!"He may have promoted treason during the Clinton administration:
"Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here. He'd better have a bodyguard."He vigorously promoted government meddling in citizens' private lives (provided that those citizens were women and/or gay):
"That is why I fought against abortion and that is why if I were still in the Senate I would be doing everything I could to defend the sanctity of marriage."In the coming days, while the kissy-ass mainstream media does all it can to lionize (or at least downplay the worst features of) Jesse Helms and his accomplishments, using terms like "staunch conservative," "firebrand," and "controversial figure," I can't pretend to mourn his passing.
During his career, he did all he could to assure that people I admire--and, for that matter, people like me--would never enjoy equal protection under the law. He did not spend any time promoting the loftiest principals of democracy or any parts of the U.S. Constitution he and his supporters found inconvenient. He was often willing to grind the bootheels of governmental authority in the faces of the downtrodden. These are not the actions of a patriot.
At the same time, I cannot celebrate the death of a sad, angry, disease-ridden 86-year-old man. There are those who loved him, and they are either saddened at his passing or relieved that his suffering is finally at an end.
There are many people who shared his views. Most of them, like Helms, are fast approaching the ends of their lives and, as that generation passes into history, U.S. politics will be transformed.
However, we should not forget that Helms does not define his generation. Not all of his cohorts were racist, homophobic bigots. There was much of value to be found among Helms' contemporaries; like every generation, they had their visionaries, artists and iconoclasts. One of the best friends I could ever hope to have was his age, and I will always be grateful for the major impact that woman had on my life.
I'm optimistic about the future of U.S. politics--and much of that optimism stems from the fact that many of its worst features are destined to die out with Helms' generation. But I do hope we can learn from, and hang on to, some of the elders' best traits: They were tenacious, courageous and loyal. They were practical, efficient and strongly valued individual character. They were resistant to fads and deeply suspicious of the way that modern innovations tend to reduce people to mere cogs in a machine.
For all his faults, Helms did serve as a major rallying point against which today's left has been able to coalesce. Figures like him serve to strengthen and encourage activism for human and civil rights. And, I suppose, it is for that I am grateful to him.
* Full disclosure: I'm an avid (though only a one-at-a-time) cigarette smoker.