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The Discreet Charms of a Demogogue

Hard Right: The Rise of Jesse Helms

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

1.

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.1 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?

2.

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 filled that day, why were those people black?”

No athlete, Big Jesse’s boy played the tuba and sousaphone. But his real ambition was not musical. “From the time I was a little boy I wanted to be a newspaperman,” he said recently. “At age nine, I was sweeping out the printing office of the Monroe Enquirer and the Monroe Journal.” Helms spent a year at Wingate College, a Baptist junior college near Monroe, and another at Wake Forest College, a Baptist four-year college then located outside Raleigh. He left school when he got a job on a newspaper.

Raleigh, North Carolina, in the 1940s was a sleepy state capital with a population of about 55,000. North Carolina at the time enjoyed a reputation as a moderate, forward-looking southern state. In 1949, the political scientist V.O. Key, Jr., wrote that

Willingness to accept new ideas, sense of community responsibility toward the Negro, feeling of common purpose, and relative prosperity have given North Carolina a more sophisticated politics than exists in most southern states. The spirit of the state has not tolerated strident demagoguery.2

In his first job as a reporter for The News and Observer, Helms found himself in one of the centers of what Key called the “progressive plutocracy.”

He rejected such genteel southern progressivism, and he spent much of his life leading a revolt against what it stood for. The News and Observer, a morning daily, then (and to a large extent today) was the major paper in the state. During Helms’s apprenticeship, the paper was edited by Jonathan Daniels, the essayist, novelist, government official, and liberal Democrat with a national reputation. In the 1940s and 1950s, he was one of the most prominent spokesmen for the New Deal tradition in the South—he served for a time on the Democratic National Committee.

Helms left The News and Observer for a better job at the paper’s afternoon rival, The Raleigh Times. He married The News and Observer’s society editor Dorothy Coble, and absorbed the conservative politics of her father, Jacob, a wholesale shoe salesman in Raleigh. After a tour as a navy recruiter during the war, he became news director of WRAL Radio, owned by an outspoken conservative named A.J. Fletcher, whom Helms recalls as a “second father.” He was also influenced by an eccentric rightwing radio commentator in Raleigh named Alvin Wingfield, Jr., who subscribed to Pravda and opposed parking meters as unconstitutional. (He later killed himself in despair at the growth of communism.) Helms covered local news, lugging a sixty-pound wire recorder around town. His nightly program “News of Raleigh” soon became serious competition for the two daily papers.

In 1950, Helms and Daniels were on opposite sides in the bitter senatorial primary between Frank Porter Graham and conservative lawyer Willis Smith. Graham was the president of the University of North Carolina, the center of the state’s progressive tradition. His liberalism was so mild he opposed setting up a fair employment practices commission. Daniels persuaded Governor Kerr Scott to name Graham to a vacant Senate seat; he then unofficially took a leading part in Graham’s campaign to win election to a full term.

Graham defeated Smith in the first primary, but fell short of a majority. On Wingfield’s advice, Helms broadcast an appeal to Smith supporters to rally at the candidate’s house to persuade him to seek a runoff; and in the bitter, racist campaign that followed, Helms advised Smith on press relations and advertising. Now, thirty-seven years later, questions linger about the tactics used to defeat Graham. Handbills were distributed in which it was alleged that Graham “favors mingling of the races.” Most damaging of all, a doctored photograph seemed to show Graham’s wife dancing with a black soldier. Furgurson quotes an eyewitness, now dead, who claims that Helms himself used scissors to outline the figures. Helms and his friends angrily deny any part in the forgery. But there is no doubt that some of Smith’s supporters scurrilously played on white prejudice and sexual fear of blacks.

After Smith’s victory, Helms went to Washington with him. “I came up here [to Washington] and watched The News and Observer attack Mr.Smith day after day,” he told Furgurson. “I was here and knew what he was doing, and was astonished at what they said he was doing, and I resented it. That was the beginning.” Helms’s subsequent career can be seen as a quarrel with his home-town newspaper that has broadened its adversaries to include the Senate, American foreign policy, and CBS, which he tried to take over by mobilizing a nationwide campaign of conservatives.

Helms returned to Raleigh in 1953 as executive director of the North Carolina Bankers Association and editor of its magazine, Tarheel Banker. He wrote a monthly column, which concentrated on the evils of civil rights, school integration, and communism. Helms won election to the city council in 1957, and was an obstreperous, conservative presence in city government.

Meanwhile, A.J. Fletcher, his broadcasting mentor, had obtained the region’s first television license; in 1960, he made Helms executive vice-president and editorial director of WRAL-TV. In November 1960, Helms began broadcasting the editorials that would make him a political power.

Helms broadcast five-minute editorials during the evening and morning news five times a week from 1960 to 1972. The commentaries were rebroadcast on FM radio across the state and reprinted in one hundred weekly newspapers. By the mid-1960s, they had made Helms a statewide celebrity. College students gathered in their dorms to jeer him; but in homes and stores across eastern North Carolina, listening to his daily broadcasts was almost a religious ritual. The enormous popularity he built during the early 1960s was based, in large part, on the anger of southern whites at the attack on segregation and the “southern way of life.”

Helms began his attack on Martin Luther King in his seventh editorial, and he kept up a steady flow of criticism of King until—and beyond—his assassination. “Dr. King’s outfit [the Southern Christian Leadership Conference], we keep remembering, is heavily laden with leaders with proven records of communism, socialism, and sex perversion, as well as other curious behavior,” he said in November 1963.

Helms’s broadcasts mocked not just King’s movement, but blacks in general: he told cannibal jokes, he warned of black crime in northern cities, he reported that rural black children came to school hungry and dirty. Jews who took part in the movement or were sympathetic to it, such as Allard Lowenstein or Harry Golden, then editor of The Carolina Israelite, also came in for criticism, as did “the existing political entity, known as Israel.” Helms kept up his attack on Israel until 1985, after a close election contest in which pro-Israeli groups and prominent Jews contributed heavily to the opposition; only then did he publicy announce his support for the Jewish state.

He was also perfecting his polemic against “the media,” at first attacking The News and Observer, then, during the Goldwater presidential campaign, denouncing “the national press” for espousing the same liberal values he had come to detest in the editorials of Jonathan Daniels. By 1971, Helms was saying,

had they been able to foresee the incredible technology of today’s distribution of news and opinion, it is just possible that the Founding Fathers would have placed a limitation on such a fearful centralization of journalistic power as exists today in America.

During the early years, WARL signed itself on the air as “the Voice of Free Enterprise.” In his editorials, Helms talked of a continuing struggle between “free enterprise” and “socialism.” In his eighth broadcast, he proclaimed that the word “liberal” was “a polite way of saying socialistic.” Not long afterward, he reminded his viewers that the Soviet Union was ruled by “socialists who call themselves Communists.” The equation of liberalism, socialism, and communism came up over and over again.

As the 1960s wore on, Helms’s rhetoric became more and more alarmist in tone. During the riots that followed King’s assassination, Helms broadcast a prophecy that

  1. 1

    A detailed biographical sketch of Helms, drawn largely from North Carolina newspaper clippings, is included in Helms and Hunt: The North Carolina Senate Race, 1984 by William D. Snider (The University of North Carolina Press, 1985).

  2. 2

    V.O. Key, Jr., Southern Politics in State and Nation (University of Tennessee Press, 1984), p. 210.

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