Speaking Ill of the Dead


Political scientists investigating why the Republican Party attracts so little support from black voters don't need to look farther than the extraordinary fashion in which GOP leaders have reacted to the death of former North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms on the Fourth of July.


The possibility that a black man might actually be elected president this year was, according to some theorists, the cause of Helms' death. Helms, I can declare with no fear of contradiction, was one of the nastiest racists ever elected to the Senate and a charter member of the Segregationist Hall of Fame, whose members also include Theodore Bilbo, Orville Faubus, George Wallace and Lester Maddox.

His career was built on opposition to integration and gay rights. He got his start concocting ads accusing his political opponents of fraternizing with black women then went on to deliver segregationist diatribes on North Carolina radio and TV stations. Once he got elected to the Senate, he bloviated against the holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. and beat back challenges to his Senate seat by former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt with blatantly racist TV ads. He never once apologized for his antediluvian beliefs. As David Broder of the Washington Post observed in 2001 when Helms finally retired from the Senate after nearly 30 years of obstructionism, race baiting, gay bashing and shear meanness, "he was the last prominent, unabashed white racist politician in this country."

Amen. You're not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but I'm glad the ol' rascal is gone. I hope he is roasting in hell. I wish it had happened sooner.

But to hear George W. Bush and his fellow top Republicans, a racist word never had dripped from Helms' lips. They paint Helms as some kind of upstanding, mainstream, anti-communist conservative who might even have taken out a life membership in the NAACP. "Jesse Helms was a kind, decent and humble man and a passionate defender of what he called 'the Miracle of America.' So it is fitting that this great patriot left us on the Fourth of July," declared our president in another example of his unique selective vision.

Bob Dole, the Republican former senator whose wife Elizabeth now occupies the North Carolina Senate seat once held by Helms, asked rhetorically, "Was Jesse Helms a racist? I never spotted that in him," which suggests that Dole must be either blind or really stupid. And in what might be the most extreme example of white-washing since Tom Sawyer, Marc Thiessen, the chief White House speech writer, rhapsodized in a Washington Post op-ed that, "What his critics could not appreciate is that, by the time he left office, Jesse Helms had become a mainstream conservative. And it was not because Helms had moved toward the mainstream—it was because the mainstream moved toward him."

If, as I fear, it's true that mainstream conservatives like Thiessen have become more like Jesse Helms over the years, that's no cause for rejoicing. It's a reason for blacks—and decent people of all races—to vote Democratic and put a stop to this madness.


What makes this chorus of revisionism even more repulsive is the willingness of some segments of the news media in Helms' apotheosis. My colleague Richard Prince, author of the online column Journal-isms, has chronicled the euphemisms that journalists and broadcasters have employed to avoid labeling Helms a bigot. (I started to say to keep from calling a spade a spade, but in this context that wouldn't be appropriate.)

Even Juan Williams, the only black panelist on Fox News Sunday, exonerated Helms by claiming that the old curmudgeon's commentaries and editorials merely reflected hard-line conservative values, not "any kind of racist rant."


That's the kind of evasive language, designed to hide the truth, that I'd expect to hear from a certain breed of conservative politicians as they attempt to rewrite history, not from a journalist ostensibly loyal to the facts.

So let me say this clearly: Jesse Helms was a racist. He may have loved his family and been a courtly Southern gentleman, but he was still a racist in every bone and fiber of his body. Anyone who says otherwise is either a liar or a fool.


Jack White is a regular contributor to The Root.

is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.