The Apotheosis of Jesse Helms: President Bush Sends the Senator Heavenward on a Cloud of Orwellian Hot Air

The apotheosis of Jesse Helms has begun. This week, President Bush weighed in on the legacy of the recently deceased Senator, saying:

Jesse Helms was a kind, decent, and humble man and a passionate defender of what he called “the Miracle of America.” So it is fitting that this great patriot left us on the Fourth of July.  He was once asked if he had any ambitions beyond the United States Senate.  He replied: “The only thing I am running for is the Kingdom of Heaven.”  Today, Jesse Helms has finished the race, and we pray he finds comfort in the arms of the loving God he strove to serve throughout his life.

Jesse Helms. Kind and decent. Humble. A man whose eyes were always directed piously upward, fixed on the Kingdom of Heaven, and who is now in the arms of a loving God.

Wow. You’d think the President was talking about Tim Russert. 

But I wonder. How could such an imitator of Tim and Jesus be perceived so, um, differently from this by so many?

Has something fallen down Orwell’s INGSOC memory hole here?

Let’s see. Here’s Jesse Helms’s characterization of the University of North Carolina, made in 1950:

The University of Negroes and Communists.

That doesn’t sound like a very kind or decent thing to say. Certainly Tim Russert would never have said such a thing. But okay, that was way back in 1950.

But then what about Mr. Helms’s response to Duke university students holding a vigil for Martin Luther King after he was assasinated?:

They should ask their parents if it would be all right for their son or daughter to marry a Negro.

That sounds a bit ugly. Once again, I think this falls short of kind and decent. But let’s give him credit. He didn’t say it was out and out wrong for a white student to marry an African American student. He told the white students to check with their parents first.

And again, that was 1968, and 1968 was a long time ago. 

Surely the good Senator from North Carolina became more kind and decent over time, right? 

Well, here was his stated reason for resisting one of President Clinton’s cabinet nominees back in the early 1990s:

She’s a damn lesbian. I am not going to put a lesbian in a position like that. If you want to call me a bigot, fine.

Now the early 1990s wasn’t so long ago. When exactly did Jesse Helms start acting kind and decent?

Here’s a statement of the Senator in 1995:

Homosexuals are weak, morally sick wretches. 


And in this quote, the Senator uses a plague metaphor for describing gay people who work in the media:

The New York Times and Washington Post are both infested with homosexuals themselves. Just about every person down there is a homosexual or lesbian.

Are such comments really consistent with someone who was kind and decent? Or are we being subjected to yet another Orwellian White House moment in which facts and the actual meanings of words are, well, simply not important?

Obviously, Jesse Helms was not always indecent and unkind, and in the course of his long public career he may have frequently been on the right side of many issues, and history may attest to this. The quotes I’ve offered above do not reflect the whole of the man. Like other human beings, he had positive and negative qualities. But let’s not pretend that Jesse Helms’s legacy is unproblematic. And let’s also not pretend that those who offer up unrestrained praise for the man, as Bush did, don’t know what they are doing. They know that Helms was often a bigot and they don’t care, and that says as much about them as it does about the Senator. 

Here’s a link with a few more of Helms’s quotes:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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