Tramp the earth down: The unlikely debt I owe the late Senator Jesse Helms.
Senator Jesse Helms, no-longer-living evidence that the good die young...
The caustic sensation of hatred and bile inching up the back of my throat: It's the same feeling I used to get as a teenager in North Carolina, as I watched Republican Senator Jesse Helms play the race card over and over again, to effectively divide and conquer my home state, and win reelection, often by the narrowest of margins. Now, as I read the obits for the 86-year-old Senator, who croaked early this a.m., my disgust with this man and everything he represents comes back to me, like some long-distance mental boomerang that I thought I'd discarded eons ago.
Helms was an ardent white supremacist, practically a Klan member minus the robes. Race-baiting was a constant throughout Helms' career, a tactic he used to get himself and others elected, one that he leavened heavily with cheap, brazen McCarthyism. From the 1950 U.S. Senate primary contest between Democrats Willis Smith and Frank Porter Graham, where Jesse (a Dem himself at the time) helped smear Graham with the then deadly charge of being in favor of the "mingling of the races," to his bigoted anti-Civil Rights rants as a commentator for WRAL-TV, and on to his filibustering of a federal holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Helms never wavered in his opposition to equal rights for African-Americans. He appealed to the worst of what was in most North Carolinians. His 30 years representing the Old North State in the Senate will forever be a stain on North Carolina's history.
Of course, Helms' evil extended beyond the expansive boundaries of racial politics. Helms hated gays, openly referred to homosexuals as "disgusting," famously telling the New York Times concerning AIDS that, "We've got to have some common sense about a disease transmitted by people deliberately engaging in unnatural acts." Later in his career, he supported assistance to Africa to help combat AIDS, but he remained resolute in his bigoted beliefs that homosexuality was immoral and that gays were responsible for spreading the disease in the United States.
I know absolutely nothing about this album cover, save that it's hilarious...
Abroad, Helms supported every murderous, right-wing dictator and politician he could find. He was a great admirer of Chile's General Augusto Pinochet, and one of the primary sponsors of El Salvador's Roberto D'Aubuisson, founder of the ARENA party and organizer of the country's rightist death squads. Helms was, of course, a tireless anti-Communist crusader. But he only saw human rights abuses in Communist dictatorships. Those in right-wing dictatorships were either overlooked or forgiven.
Still, it was Jesse's anti-black sentiments that dominated his political history and that disturb any honest memory of him. (Helms once referred to the relatively progressive University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, as "The University of Negroes and Communists.") In high-school, I was a part of a trip to DC by a student group called Close Up. Those of us from North Carolina visited the Senate to meet with our Senators, Helms and Helms' wing-nut puppet John East. We sat assembled in a meeting room as first East, then Helms addressed us, and took questions. I will never forget a young black girl who rose to ask Helms why he opposed a national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr. She patiently stood there, while Helms explained that he had been privy to government documents which forced him to conclude that King was a Communist.
I was stung by the enormity of the lie and the gall of the man to so undiplomatically run-down a person who was a hero to so many, including this young lady, and myself. This greasy, wall-eyed pol with his wet gob full of marbles, forever threatening to hurl spittle at all those in harms way, this supremacist skunk from Monroe, North Carolina, was not worthy of carrying King's dry-cleaning, much less casting judgment on his legacy.
Make no mistake of the lie, by the way. According to William A Link's recent, critical biography of Helms, Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism, "an exhaustive study of the 200,000 pages of King's FBI files done by a Justice Department task force in 1976 found no evidence that he ever belonged to the Communist Party or sympathized with its objectives."
In any case, that moment is forever fixed in my brain, and it helped motivate me to work as a volunteer for NC Governor Jim Hunt, who challenged Helms' reelection in 1984, and ultimately lost 52 to 48 percent, in a bitter, hard-fought campaign. Helms' people were adept at dirty politics and smearing political opponents. Hunt's campaign, less so. And this deficit in skulduggery cost Hunt a 20-point advantage leading up to the election.
Later, after I left North Carolina, I remember watching Jesse on the Larry King Live show, when a caller told Jesse hat he wanted to thank him "for everything you’ve done to help keep down the niggers." Helms was surprised, amused even, replying, "Whoops, well, thank you, I think." He later admitted to being punished as a kid for using the N-word, but he never disputed the caller's sentiment, that he'd spent his career helping to "keep down the niggers." Folks in NC would always say of Jesse that, "You know where he stands." It was not the "knowing," but the "where" that always pissed me off.
The cover to Elvis Costello's 1989 album Spike, which inspired my dreams of post-mortem vengeance.
I've often fantasized about celebrating Helms' demise. There's a song on Elvis Costello's 1989 Spike album called "Tramp the Dirt Down," where Costello daydreams of doing just that to the dirt atop Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's grave. I sympathize with those lyrics, and have in the past run them through my mind, applying them to Helms.
Well I hope I don't die too soon
I pray the Lord my soul to save
Oh I'll be a good boy, I'm trying so hard to behave
Because there's one thing I know, I'd like to live
long enough to savour
That's when they finally put you in the ground
I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down
Though I too would like to tramp the earth down, I now realize, with the wisdom of a few more years, that I owe ol' Jesse a strange debt of gratitude. There are those raised in more enlightened climes that have never been exposed to such base, political villainy. I didn't enjoy that luxury. As a result, my antennae are acutely tuned to the malevolence, lies and smear-tactics of those who would use race, nationality and/or ethnicity as their bugbears. These individuals are common enough in Arizona, of course, save that here they're more concerned with brown instead of black skin.
I also learned from Helms' that the good fight is the one you win, and only the one you win. Metaphorically speaking, you need not become a snake in order to overcome the reptile. But you must overcome it, or suffer the consequences. Half-measures do not work against water moccasins like Helms. For teaching me that, I owe him one. And the next time I pay a visit to my old Tar Heel home, I plan to tell offer up to Jesse my thanks, all while, circumstances permitting, I jump up and down on his grave.