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Will Jesse Rise Again? : Running Against a Black Man for a Fourth Term, Helms Has Faith in the Politics of Nostalgia

October 28, 1990|EDWARD A. GARGAN | Edward A. Gargan"s book, ""China"s Fate, A People"s Turbulent Struggle With Reform and Repression, 1980-1990,"" will be published by Doubleday this winter. His last story for this magazine was eye-witness account of the Tien An Men Square Massacre.

AS THE LAST streaks of daylight play out in tremulous pinks and oranges, a steady drizzle of sensi ble Chevrolets, work- worn pickup trucks and family vans with tinted glass jolt over potholes into a dusty field, weaving to avoid couples strolling toward the National Guard Armory in Wilmington, N.C.

Earnest young men perspire in dark suits and paper-white shirts split by somber ties, clothes that hang unfamiliarly on their frames. They hover near the doors, pointing people toward the rows of long, foldaway tables covered in white paper tablecloths and, beyond them, the line of steel vats filled with good North Carolina grub--barbecue pork, Brunswick stew, coleslaw, hush puppies. Postcard-size American flags fixed with patriotic bunting dot the white walls of the armory.

A group of men discusses engine displacements; a few older women stir the hot, soupy air with paper fans, and the din of long Southern drawls rises to fill the brick cavern. Then, suddenly, the conversations fade and a splatter of clapping swells to a tide of applause as North Carolina's senior senator walks in.

A smile of sorts ripples over Jesse Helms' lips as he plunges into the aisles, shaking hands, stooping to whisper a word to an acquaintance or pat a child on the head. As he moves along, he sheds his blue suit jacket. When he shuffles by, he extends a soft, pink hand, his eyes refracted through his clumsy, owlish glasses, and he gruffly purrs, "Glad to see you here."

"Jesse's a man of common sense," a middle-aged woman patiently lectures a visiting Northerner. "He knows what human nature is. Grass-roots people will support him to the end."

"Now you look here," says her husband, the owner of a small construction company, as he holds up a leaflet that has been left at each place setting. "He's against higher taxes, for the death penalty, against abortion and, right here, he's against using taxpayers' money to pay for obscene,"--he stumbles, wrestling with homoerotic-- "well, I can't pronounce that, but pornography and avant-garde art."

His wife speaks up again. "I don't think the government should be funding art in the first place. To me, putting a crucifix in urine is disgusting. Now, who's the strongest opponent of spending federal dollars for supporting the NEA? People say he stands for what the Constitution intended. This nation is founded on the Bible by godly men.

"The thing about Jesse," she says conclusively, "is you know where he stands. The thing about Jesse is, what you see is what you get."

Jesse. It's always Jesse. Not Senator Helms. Not Mr. Helms. It's just Jesse. More than anything, 69-year-old Jesse Helms has convinced many white North Carolinians that he's one of them, that Jesse Helms is just plain folks.

In this, his fourth U. S. Senate campaign, he is counting, once again, on a powerful down-home style that melds folksiness, a bearlike embrace of traditionalism and his misty-eyed recollections of North Carolina's bucolic past with a finely tuned, state-of-the-art political money machine second to none in the country. He won his last election, widely regarded as one of the most vicious races in modern American politics (another was the 1950 Senate campaign in which Willis Smith, a former American Bar Assn. president, aided by Helms, defeated Frank Graham, president of the University of North Carolina, after months of rabid race- and redbaiting), by a hairsbreadth over former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. This time, Helms' opponent is Harvey Gantt, a 47-year-old architect and former mayor of Charlotte. Gantt, though, is different from Helms' previous opponents: He is black.

Although Helms insists that he is not running a racially tinged campaign, Gantt's very color has thrust the issue of race before every North Carolinian as it has never been before. The campaign also has become this year's most clearly drawn run for the Senate--one in which Helms' unvarnished conservatism clashes starkly with Gantt's unapologetic liberalism, a contest that has remained neck-and-neck as the candidates push toward Nov. 6.

As Jesse Helms steps onto the stage this evening in September, loosening, then stripping off, his tie, his eyes dance over the crowd, a gathering of white, middle- and lower-income people, his people, who spring to their feet, chanting, "Six more years! Six more years!" Then he speaks, his voice rising and ebbing in the cadences of his southern Piedmont roots. There's more storytelling than oratory, more homilies than stentorian exhortations.

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