CommunityPam's House Blend

Helms: nearing the end

[UPDATE: commenter Coturnix noted to link to the current issue of the local progressive paper, the excellent Independent, which has a great article by Barry Yeoman. See end of the post.]

The unapologetic, racist, homophobic coot is hawking his autobiography through surrogates, but the clock is finally winding down on the guy. The man was an unforgivable bigot, but he was a politician that believed in and excelled at constituent services no matter what your political persuasion was, something our current Senator, Elizabeth Dole, sucks massively at.

Sean Hannity made a big deal out of coming to interview Helms, but apparently this has not aired yet. (News & Observer):

At a bookstore appearance in Raleigh Saturday to mark the release of his memoirs, Helms did not speak to the group. Nor is he doing any live interviews to promote his book. The last speech he gave was nearly a year ago.

After a half century of vigorously articulating the conservative viewpoint, Helms’ voice has been muted as he struggles with the indignities of old age, including an inconstant memory.

…Friends say Helms, who will turn 84 next month, still goes to his West Raleigh office five days a week. They say he can still be an engaging lunch companion, sharing old stories from his campaigns and his 30 years in the U.S. Senate. He still uses his office to try to help former constituents. But he suffers memory lapses, forgetting the identity of people he has long known, and confusing times and places, friends say.

…Helms, who retired from the Senate two and half years ago, is recovering from serious physical problems. He was gravely ill in 2002 when he underwent open-heart surgery to replace a worn- out prosthetic heart valve. Last year he was hospitalized for more than a month with acute gallstone pancreatitis complicated by a staph infection in his bloodstream. Other health issues have included knee replacements, four coronary bypass grafts, and radiation treatment for prostate cancer.

…Helms recently came out with his memoir, “Here’s Where I Stand.” Helms writes in the book about his rise from the son of a Monroe police chief to WRAL-TV editorialist to national political figure. And he writes about his many Senate battles, from his opposition to the Panama Canal Treaty and to Castro’s communist government in Cuba to his battles to overhaul the United Nations.

…Helms has done a couple of carefully controlled interviews with friendly journalists, an associate at his elbow to help prompt him. One interview was with Fred Barnes, editor of Washington-based The Weekly Standard. Sean Hannity of Fox News has interviewed Helms, although the interview has yet to air.

***



The Independent’s piece on Helms, Whitewash, is unrelentingly delicious. A snippet’s here, but the whole piece is worth the read…

During his three decades representing North Carolina in the Senate, Helms befriended human-rights abusers around the world; stalled important treaties and appointments; and launched spirited attacks on civil rights, AIDS funding and legalized abortion. He helped mastermind a brilliant fund-raising machine, and had his fingers in everything from black-voter intimidation to a veiled threat against President Clinton’s life. His name was the first thing strangers mentioned, usually with derision, when I told them I lived in North Carolina. Yet he also won all five of his senatorial races, trading in on white racial resentment, Christian conservatism, and an avuncular, countrified style.

Now, just before his 85th birthday, Helms has finally decided to share his story. This month, Random House is releasing the former senator’s Here’s Where I Stand: A Memoir. Its 36 chapters offer no introspection, no sense of fallibility–not even the basic elements of good storytelling. But we do get 300 pages of Helms’ own words, or perhaps those of a second-rate ghostwriter. In that sense, Here’s Where I Stand is an important historical document about one of America’s most important 20th-century political figures.

It is also a curious exercise in political whitewash. For a senator whose very strength lay in his combative style, Helms has managed to portray himself as a lover of all humanity, from deceased Democrats Paul Wellstone (“a courageous defender of what he believed”) and Hubert Humphrey (who allegedly told Helms “I love you” on his deathbed) to the entire Jewish people, “who prepared the way for the true Liberator of all mankind, Jesus Christ.” In fact, he writes, the Jews were one of two peoples whose histories inspired “the freedom Americans enjoy today.” The others, of course, were the Anglo-Saxons.

…Helms describes the job that catapulted him to statewide fame and launched his political career: his 12 years as an on-air editorialist for WRAL-TV. Throughout North Carolina, he tells us, “Everyone would gather around the television after dinner to hear the news and then the editorial … In many cases no one was allowed to speak until the editorial was finished.”

Reagan and Helms review the cover of a campaign mailer from the 1980s highlighting Reagan’s support of Helms.

What Helms manages not to tell us, though, is the content of those editorials. He quotes a bland one on federal housing programs, and a mournful one about the Kennedy assassination. (“The manner of his death leaves America standing naked as a symbol of civilization mocked.”) What he doesn’t say is that the 2,751 editorials were based in some of the most venal bigotry of the times. “Are civil rights only for Negroes?” he asked in 1963. “White women in Washington who have been raped and mugged on the streets in broad daylight have experienced the most revolting sort of violation of their civil rights. The hundreds of others who had their purses snatched last year by Negro hoodlums may understandably insist that their right to walk the street unmolested was violated.” In his five-minute editorials, Helms condoned lunch-counter segregation; said civil-rights protesters were “no less an affront to society” than the Ku Klux Klan; and accused civil-rights marchers of participating in “sex orgies of the rawest sort.” He also insisted that four Alabama Klansmen who murdered a Detroit woman in 1965 were responding to “deliberate provocation” by Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson. If Helms feels any remorse for inflaming racial tensions in North Carolina during the 1960s, he reveals none of it in his new autobiography.

Barry Yeoman rocks. Ah, yes, it is a delicious piece of the naked truth about that man. I actually remember watching some of those awful WRAL editorial on our black and white TV set. He was a scary man to little Pam.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding