Being a native and lifelong resident of North Carolina, I grew up with Jesse Helms — but not the Helms caricature that so many on the left have painted of him for the past several decades. After his death on July 4th, in spite of the many public statements by Helms’ friends and supporters, many on the left are still baffled that North Carolinians reelected the outspoken conservative to the Senate so many times. I only met Helms a couple of times very briefly, but my sister and several of my friends worked for Helms’ campaigns over the years and have given me more close up and personal accounts of the man. Whether you knew him in person or grew up watching him on television, the Jesse Helms you saw was what you got and that, in a nutshell, is what so many loved about him.
It might be easier for those who hated Helms to hold on to their caricature of him as a hate-filled bigot who was only in office because voters in NC are backward hicks, but that is not the reality.
Regardless of whether a politician is liberal or conservative, or what their position is on the war, or abortion or guns or any other issue, if they serve their constituents well, treat others with respect, make clear where they stand and then stand without compromising their principles without regard to what anyone says or thinks of them, voters will elect them, and reelect them, time and time again. That is a lesson anyone seeking elected office would do well to learn from the example of Senator Jesse Helms.
In this piece linked above I use quotes from some of those eulogizing Helms this week to explain why he was so successful. The way Helms always said what he believed, without apology, and stood by those words with actions is the thing that so many are yearning for in a politician today — whether they be on the left or right.
One of my favorite accounts was from Senator Mitch McConnell’s eulogy at Helms funeral this week (as reported in the Rocky Mount Telegram):
McConnell said he often has observed a disparity between a man’s public image and his true character.
“No one seemed to suffer more from this peculiar disconnect more than Jesse Helms,” McConnell said, pausing. “And no one seemed to care about it less.”
A target of newspaper editorial writers, Helms was known largely as the conservative liberals loved to hate. But Helms, a magnet for racially divisive controversy over the years, never became bitter with the negative publicity, McConnell said. He remembered Helms dedicated an entire wall in his Washington office to hanging unflattering editorial cartoons of himself.
After The New York Times published one particularly scathing editorial, McConnell recalled, a young Helms staff worker prepared a harsh rebuttal. Helms read the letter then turned to the aide and said, “Son, just so you understand, I don’t care what The New York Times thinks about me.”
Additional links to a few of the many things said and written about Senator Helms can be found here.