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.