The Jesse Helms You Do Remember

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Marc Thiessen was a long-time aide to Jesse Helms on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who is now chief White House speech writer. On this morning’s Washington Post Op-Ed page, he comes to the defense of his former boss, who passed away over the holiday weekend. Thiessen complains that in reporting on Helms’ death, “the media have demonstrated one final time that they never fully understood the power or impact of this great man.”

Thiessen is right about one thing: the mainstream media often underestimated Helms. They didn’t appreciate his parliamentary skills or accept the sincerity of his fiercely conservative, sometimes antediluvian convictions. But mostly the media underestimated just how effective Helms’ crass exploitation of racial fear and resentment could be in North Carolina in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

Thiessen’s complaint — though he doesn’t state it — is that the media focused too much in its obituaries on Helms’ reputation as a divisive race-baiter. But facts are stubborn things. Helms was a master pracitioner of the race-based “Southern Strategy” made infamous by Nixon, and practiced long thereafter. When then-RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman spoke to the NAACP in 2005, he apologized on behalf of the GOP for the Southern Strategy, saying “[s]ome Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization… I am here as Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”

I do not dispute that there was more to Helms than his critics allow. But a great man? As David Broder wrote in 2001, upon the Senator’s retirement, few American politicians were better at, or better known for, trying to benefit from racial polarization than Jesse Helms. And unlike others who had done the same — George Wallace, Strom Thurmond — Helms was unrepentant to the end. That — far more than his role in bringing Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into NATO, as Thiessen would have it — is what he will be remembered for. Greatness demands more.