Jesse Helms has passed, and what should we say? We can extend our condolences to the Helms family, who are not responsible for his misdeeds and odious views.
What else can you say? Here is one approach, according to my morning Tribune:
"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 4th of July," President George W. Bush said in a statement Friday.
Let's take a deep breath and re-read President Bush's statement.
Senator Helms was not a kind or decent man. I don't know how he treated close friends and immediate family, and I don't really care. In his public and political life, he was loathsome. Here is one story that, by itself, richly earns that label:
Soon after the Senate vote on the Confederate flag insignia, Sen. Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.) ran into [African-American Illinois Senator Carol] Moseley-Braun in a Capitol elevator. Helms turned to his friend, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah), and said, "Watch me make her cry. I'm going to make her cry. I'm going to sing 'Dixie' until she cries." He then proceeded to sing the song about "the good life" during slavery to Moseley-Braun.
Dozens of other incidents make the same point. The only mildly surprising aspect of this one is the discovery that Orrin Hatch stood by during this ungentlemanly, in every way abominable display by his colleague and friend. I haven't even mentioned Helms's charming habit of refering to every African-American man, out of earshot, as "Fred."
The real "Miracle of America" is our glorious constitution, along with its accompanying imperfect effort to widen the circle of equality to include every American. The ranks of its passionate defenders do not include open segregationists.
More than anyone else, Helms openly opposed funding for HIV prevention and treatment because he regarded gays and lesbians -- presumably drug users, too -- as "disgusting people." He opposed academic research, the arts, foreign aid, the United Nations, domestic and international public health efforts, and of course affirmative action and the Martin Luther King holiday.
On the occasion of Helms' Senate retirement, courtly moderate David Broder wrote one of the very few personally ascerbic columns of his long newpaper career. Titled simply: "Jesse Helms, White Racist," Broder deserves enduring credit for saying what needed to be said. Broder sharply criticized his own paper for spending only two out of 54 paragraphs in a large retrospective noting Helms' racism. Reading the New York Times soft-pedaled obituary today, these words resonate.
I am amazed to see so many Conservatives and Republicans offer encomiums to this man today. [Postscript: The New York Times provides one example:
Edwin Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, the Washington-based conservative think tank, called Mr. Helms "one of the most consequential figures of the 20th century. Along with Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, he helped establish the conservative movement and became a powerful voice for free markets and free people."
The terrific blogger Hilzoy has compiled a dozen more jaw-droppers from leading conservative politicians and journalists issuing encomiums to this man. http://obsidianwings.blogs.com/obsidian_wings/2008/07/conservatives-a.html]
Do these figures understand how such comments tarnish their legacies? Many call him a righteous and principled father of modern conservatism. I guess he was. He played a key role supporting Ronald Reagan and other national Republican leaders.
The only thing fitting about Helms' July 4 passing is that we note the passing of the last openly racist, blatantly un-Reconstructed southern politician.
So what do we say when an odious man passes from our midst? Here's my take: God bless his family, but good riddance to him.