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With Helms, the South Can Rise Again--But for How Long?

September 21, 1997|Jacob Heilbrunn | Jacob Heilbrunn is an associate editor of the New Republic

WASHINGTON — Jesse Helms has done it again. In torpedoing President Bill Clinton's nomination of William F. Weld to become U.S. ambassador to Mexico, the North Carolina GOP senator settled scores with Northern Republican moderates. Helms gunned for Weld not because of the former governor's stand on legalizing marijuana, but mainly because Weld had resigned from Atty. Gen. Edwin M. Meese III's Justice Department in 1986, over charges of corruption against Meese. Meese was never convicted, but Weld used the episode to paint himself as a heroic moderate Republican and went on to become governor of Massachusetts.

Helms' payback infuriated mainstream Republicans. But Helms' authoritarian style--he refused to let senators speak in Weld's behalf or to let Weld himself testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee--should have come as no surprise. Quite the contrary. In an age when Americans have become accustomed to telegenic, blow-dried politicians who smoothly jettison awkward positions, Helms is the real thing--and that thing is a Southern demagogue. Increasingly an embarrassment to his party, Helms is a living fossil, a remnant of a once-proud tradition that is slowly coming to an end, even in the hidebound U.S. Senate.

After the failure of Reconstruction, Southern demagogues emerged to nurse the wounds of the Civil War, denounce Yankee rabble-rousers and decry modern culture. The most visible pulpit that Southerners had was the Senate. Its old-fashioned, rigid formalities and intricate rules allowed Southern racists to not only hold forth on what they called the innate inferiorities of blacks, but also to stymie any reforms by use of such parliamentary tactics as filibustering. President John F. Kennedy got nowhere in dealing with the Senate. Not until a Southerner, Lyndon B. Johnson, became president, was it possible to push through real civil-rights reform.

One of the earliest and most colorful Southern demagogues was Benjamin R. "Pitchfork" Tillman, governor of, then senator from South Carolina. In 1907, Sen. Tillman went on the Chautauqua circuit in 38 states to educate Americans about "The Race Problem from a Southern Point of View." He boasted that he had told Northerners, "to their teeth, that they didn't believe the Negro was equal to the white man; that they were hypocrites and liars when they said it. Negro equality," he went on, "means social equality, mongrelization, hell fire and damnation." In the Senate, Tillman pushed relentlessly for the disenfranchisement of blacks in the South.

Then there was Mississippi's Theodore G."The Man" Bilbo. Twice, Bilbo introduced legislation in the Senate, titled "The Greater Liberia Act," that would have paid for the passage of American blacks to migrate to Liberia. In Bilbos' view, "One drop of Negro blood placed in the veins of the purest Caucasian destroys the inventive genius of his mind and strikes palsied his creative faculty." Like Tillman and other Southern racists, Bilbo was concerned with keeping Northern civil rights reformers in check. The more he was attacked by such "Northern" magazines as Time and the New Republic, the more he could portray himself back home as standing up against the Yankee infidels.

Perhaps the most influential Southern senator was Richard B. Russell of Georgia. Together with Strom Thurmond, Everett M. Dirksen and William F. Fulbright, Russell kept any potentially unfriendly legislation bottled up in the Senate. Most presidents wouldn't even contemplate attempting to push through ambitious legislation against this bloc.

Helms represents continuity with these Southern demagogues. He himself learned his authoritarian ways from his six-foot five-inch father, the local fire and police chief. "Big Jesse," as his father was known, relished beating up blacks with his billy club. As a boy, Helms watched the big-name evangelists tour the state, preaching against Northern Darwinism, communism and various other "isms" of modernity. Swaddled from an early age in romantic memories of the Confederacy, Helms developed a hatred of infidels, blacks and Yankee troublemakers.

After serving during World War II, Helms entered the radio broadcast industry and worked with early versions of Rush Limbaugh. His chief mentor was Alving Wingfield Jr., a radio commentator who decried city parking meters as unconstitutional. When Helms' candidate for the Senate, Frank Smith, won election after using such dirty tricks as doctoring a photo of his opponent so he would appear to be dancing with a black woman, Helms quit his radio station to join Smith as his top assistant in Washington. Helms' own notorious TV ad against Harvey Gantt in 1990, depicting a white man crumpling a letter suggesting he had failed to receive a job because of affirmative action, was a tactic he had learned at Smith's knee.

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