Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Helms Deep

Tasteless, I know. But it was the obvious title, and someone had to use it.

Helms had retired by the time I moved to the Tar Heel State, so I never really experienced him except via the Washington papers. I do remember the bombastic actions, the seemingly reflexive anti-Clinton-ness, the nasty campaigns, and the ridiculous statements that seemed to always issue forth from his mouth. He was probably the most polarizing figure in the Senate, and in retrospect he makes Tom Coburn (probably today's most polarizing Senator) look like a milquetoast.

So it should come as no surprise that the reactions to his death range from effusive praise to, well, Ken Layne. How else to remember a man who thought AIDS was the judgment of God against homosexuals - and then abruptly repented after a meeting with Bible-quoting rocker Bono? How to think of an unabashed racist who once bragged about trying to make Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun cry but who is remembered as the nicest guy in the Senate and "especially kind to children?" Or the man who supported numerous oppressive dictatorships throughout Latin America that were darlings of the right, and staked out a position on free trade that has since been usurped by the left?

Clearly, Helms was more complex than we give him credit for. Like most people, he doesn't fit into the devil/angel dichotomy that we like to apply to everyone in the public eye. If there's one lesson to be learned from the life of Jesse Helms, it is that simplistic characterizations of someone simply don't work.


Andy said...

I, like Jeff, showed up late to witness Helms's run in NC politics -- although I do feel strangely connected having witnessed the grieving SC experienced when Thurmond passed on.

I find it interesting to note a poll a local station is running which asked 'will Helms be remembered favorably (60%), unfavorably (30%) or neutral (10%)' which is better than any election Helms ever had (I want to say he won 55/45 once). It's nice to see that some people who clearly voted against Helms in several elections will bear no ill-will towards him. That's refreshing, all things considered.

We went downtown where they had closed the streets, where hundreds or more had shown up to see his body. We watched as the city literally came to a standstill when the streets and interstate were closed for 1/4 hour and a motorcade of black cars, EMS, police came flying by us, mere feet away, conveying Cheney to the service. The city of Raleigh is obviously in mourning for the man -- I never voted for him, didn't know him or his politics, but I still find it touching.

Mike said...

My knowledge of Jesse Helms mostly comes from pop culture: his (I'm told unlikely) friendship with Bono, the "Jesse H. coming to our pit" reference in Sonic Youth's "Chapel Hill". I know he was both revered and reviled for his political stances and personal views. But ultimately, I like Jeff's conclusion: "Simplistic characterizations of someone simply don't work." Would that we could always remember that whenever we try to pigeonhole people based on politics.