Jesse Helms and the crisis of the GOP

The death of the racist former Republican Senator on the Fourth of July shed some light on the deeper crisis afflicting the Grand Old Party.

Kirk Leech

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I watched the Fourth of July fireworks with friends on the rooftop of a Brooklyn brownstone. The pyrotechnic display to celebrate the Declaration of Independence was a bit of a damp squib, but the conversation, as is often the case in America today, exploded when it turned to the subject of the forthcoming presidential election.

This neighbourhood in New York City, a stronghold for the Democratic Party, was one of the few that rooted for Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton. There is widespread excitement in these parts about witnessing the end of an era; after all, the Bush and Clinton families have monopolised the US presidency for two decades. Another talking point during the Fourth of July celebrations was the death on that very day of the North Carolina Republican senator Jesse Helms – which many took as another symbolic marker of the ending of a political era in the US.

Helms served in the Senate for 30 years. But he is perhaps more known for playing a key role in the remaking of the Republican Party. His National Congressional Club, a money-raising machine, helped create ‘the New Right’ within the Grand Old Party (GOP), as the Republican Party is often referred to here in the US. Regarded very much as the Republican kingmaker, Helms was widely credited for saving Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign in 1976, which in many ways set in motion the Republican ascendancy.

Helms was a segregationist, and a vicious one at that. Save for donning a white sheet, he was as unreconstructed a racist as is imaginable. As he proudly announced: ‘I’ve been portrayed as a caveman by some. That’s not true. I’m a conservative progressive, and that means I think all men are equal, be they slants, beaners, or niggers.’ (1)

As an aide to the 1950 Senate campaign of North Carolina Republican candidate Willis Smith, Helms reportedly helped create attack ads against Smith’s opponent, Frank Graham, including one which read: ‘White people, wake up before it is too late. Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and your daughters, in your mills and factories? Frank Graham favors mingling of the races.’ Another ad featured photographs that Helms himself had doctored to confirm the allegation that Graham’s wife had danced with a black man (2).

Helms remained unapologetic about his bigotry to his dying day. Forty years after the Smith campaign, Helms was up against the Democratic African-American Harvey Gantt for a seat in the Senate. Helms’ campaign included yet another advert playing to racist fear. The TV ad showed the hand of a white man crumpling a rejected job application while a voiceover intoned: ‘You needed that job… but they had to give it to a minority.’ (3)

Helms’ intransigence on race was supported by a substantial section of southern Republicans, but his views on abortion, immigration, the crusade against communism, and hostility to homosexuality reflected mainstream Republican opinion. They were the cement that kept the Republican coalition together.

As for Helms’ relations with Senator John McCain, it seems neither was too keen on the other. McCain offered a standard remark on the day of Helms’ death: ‘Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of senator Jesse Helms. At this time, let us remember a life dedicated to serving this nation.’ (4) There is still no mention of him on McCain’s official website.

Perhaps it is not surprising that McCain is not keen to be associated with an old un-PC, Republican firebrand. Yet the differences between the two men also reflect wider shifts in the Republican Party, which seems to be coming apart at the seams. The very issues that have tended to keep often-warring coalition partners together now seem set to be fragmenting the GOP.

Immigration is a good example of an issue on which different sections of the Republican Party take totally different approaches today. Earlier this year, McCain emphasised the need for firmer border security, combined with a temporary worker programme and eventual citizenship for many illegal immigrants. Now, as he stressed on his trip to Mexico and Columbia last week, securing the borders comes first (5). Big Business, a traditional support base for the Republican Party, is unhappy with McCain’s change on immigration, while conservative right-wingers in turn accuse businesses of undercutting border security measures and jeopardising American jobs by hiring illegal immigrants as cheap labour.

The unravelling of the modern Republican Party along sectional lines is impacting on the Senate elections, too. One of the trends eclipsed by the 2008 presidential race is that the Democrats are now doing well in Mississippi, Alaska and North Carolina – areas that Republicans have long seen as their own backyards. Mississippi, traditionally one of America’s most conservative states, has not elected a Democratic senator in a quarter of a century, and it has voted for Republican presidential candidates in the past seven elections. Now, it looks like Mississippi is on the verge of being captured by the Democrats.

The outlook for the GOP is so dire that many Republicans have conceded that there is little they can do to wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats, even though their current majority is only 51 – 49. The stakes for Obama in the Senate races are incredibly high. If he wins the presidency, the biggest obstacle to his ability to implement any policy change could be the Senate, where parliamentary rules mean that it can take 60 votes to approve legislation.

There are still four months until the Presidential vote, but it is noticeable that the Republicans are finding it hard to put Obama on the defensive on any issue. This is in stark contrast to what the Bush campaign achieved with the last Democratic Party nominee, John Kerry. McCain is also wary of unleashing some of the more conservative Republicans for fear that they may, as some already have, make an off-message, even racial slur that backfires. Such reticence would have made Jesse Helms spit even more bile.

Since Helms died on 4 July at the age of 86, liberal commentators have made their loathing for him known. As for me, in Brooklyn, I was overcome by the blend of smells and sounds in a city comfortable with its ethnic mix, and that is all the stronger for it. I was reminded of the lyrics of Steve Earl’s paean to New York, ‘City of immigrants’:

Livin’ in a city of immigrants
I don’t need to go travelin’
Open my door and the world walks in
Livin’ in a city of immigrants.

While Helm might have despised New York for the very reason that Earl praises it, he did not represent the foundations upon which the US has been built. If John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two of the men who helped draft the Declaration of Independence, and who also died on 4 July (in 1826, 50 years after the dissemination of the declaration), were around today, they would surely be singing along with Earl.

Kirk Leech is project manager for the Research Defence Society (RDS) and is currently undertaking postgraduate research at King’s College London.

(1) Jessie Helms dies at 86, New York Times, 4 July 2008

(2) Media Downplay Bigotry of Jesse Helms, FAIR 31 August 2001

(3) You can view the video on the PBS website.

(4) Reactions to the Death of Sen. Helms, Wall Street Journal, 4 July 2008

(5) McCain Winds Up Latin Trip in Mexico, New York Times, 4 July 2008

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