The Discreet Charms of a Demogogue

Hard Right: The Rise of Jesse Helms

by Ernest B. Furgurson
Norton, 302 pp., $18.95

On September 27, 1986, Senator Jesse Helms (Republican of North Carolina) accidentally inserted a dial-a-porn message into the Congressional Record. The transcript began:

Hi. I’m Nellie from High Society and I’m so busy getting ready for my June wedding. Why don’t you and I have a private shower….

Helms’s office later explained that the text had been included through “staff oversight,” but it tells us something about his files. In public debate, Helms will make use of almost anything. When a New York congressman raised questions about the federal tobacco program, which Helms supports, he ridiculed the critic’s sex life. In 1983, he accused Martin Luther King, Jr., of “action-oriented Marxism”; when Senator Edward Kennedy defended King on the floor of the Senate, Helms taunted Kennedy about the deaths of his two brothers. After Soviet planes destroyed Korean Air Lines Flight 007, Helms, who had been on another KAL flight, claimed that he was the Russians’ real target.

Helms seems to delight in confrontation. “The people who talk about consensus are the blame-America-first crowd,” he told the annual fund-raising dinner of his political action committee, the National Congressional Club, in February. “Wasn’t it Pontius Pilate who reached a consensus with the mob that crucified Christ?” Helms inspires biblical thoughts in others. Former Democratic National Chairman Charles Manatt has called him the Prince of Darkness; the Reverend Jerry Falwell once said: “I believe Jesse Helms could almost walk on water if he tried.”

Hard Right is the first full-length biography of Helms. Furgurson is a syndicated columnist and the Washington bureau chief for The Baltimore Sun. His book contains many dates and names, and little analysis; it raises important questions about its subject without beginning to answer them. Helms’s first goal in public life was to overturn the political order in his home state. He has done that. The question arises, What is his goal now?

Jesse Alexander Helms, Jr., was born in 1921 in Monroe, North Carolina, a rail junction and cotton-farm center of about twelve thousand people not far from Charlotte. Monroe in the 1920s, Furgurson writes, had “five churches, four Republicans, one pool hall, and one whorehouse.” Helms’s father was town police and fire chief, and a much respected member of the local Baptist church. A forbidding figure, six feet five inches tall, “Big Jesse” seems to have been the major formative influence on his son. Helms remembers him as “the wisest man I’ve ever known”—and was stung deeply by anonymous quotes in Hard Right that suggest, without offering specific details, that Big Jesse was brutal in his dealings with Monroe’s blacks. “If my father was a racist,” he said when I recently talked with him, “if he had been hated by the black people of Monroe, why is it that at least a third and maybe pretty close to a half of the people in the church [for Big Jesse’s funeral], and it was …

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