Jesse Helms' "Hard-Edged Conservatism" Opposed to Everything Good

On Independence Day, Americans were greeted with the news that Jesse Helms, one of the nation's most influential lawmakers, had died. The Times joined the rest of the media in portraying the former Republican senator from North Carolina through a liberal prism, in a strongly unfavorable light.

Steven Holmes is author of the Helms obituary that appeared on Saturday's front page (The bulk of Helm's obit was penned some time ago, as is customary; Holmes is now an editor for the Washington Post.) The initial online headline, "Battled Against Civil Rights and Foreign Aid," was transformed in Saturday's print edition to the less-hostile "Jesse Helms, Unyielding Beacon of Conservatism, Is Dead at 86."

Jesse Helms, the former North Carolina senator whose courtly manner and mossy drawl barely masked a hard-edged conservatism that opposed civil rights, gay rights, foreign aid and modern art, died early Friday. He was 86.

Mr. Helms's former chief of staff, Jimmy Broughton, told The Associated Press that the former senator died of natural causes in Raleigh.

In a 52-year political career that ended with his retirement from the Senate in 2002, Mr. Helms became a beacon for the right wing of American politics, a lightning rod for the left, and, often, a mighty pain for Presidents whatever their political leaning.

Ronald Reagan, a friend who could thank Mr. Helms for critical campaign help, once described him as a "thorn in my side." Mr. Helms was known for taking on anyone, even leaders of his own party, who strayed from his idea of ideological purity.

"I didn't come to Washington to be a yes man for any President, Democrat or Republican," he said in an interview in 1989. "I didn't come to Washington to get along and win any popularity contests."

Perhaps his most visible accomplishments in the Senate came two decades apart. One was a 1996 measure that tightened trade sanctions against the Marxist government of Fidel Castro in Cuba. The other, a 1973 amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, prevented American money from going to international family planning organizations that, in his words, "provide or promote" abortion. He also introduced amendments to reduce or eliminate funds for foreign aid, welfare programs and the arts.

David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said recently that Mr. Helms's contribution to the conservative movement was "incredibly important."

Even when Helms did what liberals consider the right thing (supporting anti-AIDS measures in Africa), the Times spun it as a Helms' slam against gays:

In campaigns and in the Senate, Mr. Helms stood out in both his words and his tactics.

He fought bitterly against Federal aid for AIDS research and treatment, saying the disease resulted from "unnatural" and "disgusting" homosexual behavior.

"Nothing positive happened to Sodom and Gomorrah," he said, "and nothing positive is likely to happen to America if our people succumb to the drumbeats of support for the homosexual lifestyle."

In his last year in the Senate, he decided to support AIDS measures in Africa, where heterosexual transmission of the disease is most common.

Strangely, the Times almost skips Helms' pro-life views, reducing his advocacy for the unborn (one of his chief domestic concerns) toa single mention.

No Helms obit would be complete without a discussion of the bluntly anti-affirmative action ad the campaign ran against a black Senate opponent in 1990:

Trailing in a tough re-election fight in 1990 against a black opponent, Harvey Gantt, the former mayor of Charlotte, Mr. Helms unveiled a nakedly racial campaign ad in which a pair of hands belonging to a white job-seeker crumpled a rejection slip as an announcer explained that the job had been given to an unqualified member of a minority. Mr. Helms went on to victory.

Holmes does eventually reveal another side to Helms:

But as tough as he could be in the political theater, Mr. Helms could exhibit a softer, warmer, even impish side in his personal dealings, even with political adversaries.

In 1963, after 21 years of marriage, Mr. Helms and his wife, Dorothy, adopted a disabled child, Charles, after they read a newspaper article in which the child, who was nine at the time, plaintively said that he wanted a mother and father for Christmas.

The story attracted a predictable but still-disheartening bevy of charming comments from the paper's hard-left liberal readership, the majority of which are gleeful over Helms' death and gloating about what Jesus will have to say to him (the senator's death having worked the miracle of transforming secular leftists into believers in a judgmental God).