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I thought I would take a little stroll down history lane for some on Daily Kos and write a diary about the late unlamented Republican Senator Jesse Helms of NC.  While some look to George Wallace, Strom Thurmond ,and Richard Nixon as the architects of American racial politics, we should not forget the influence that Jesse Helms exerted on Republican politics and the issue of race relations.  Helms success on winning political contests was a combination of understanding how the media worked and the gullibility of white swing voters.

Helms started out as a typical racist Southern Democrat.  He was fervent segregationist, and he had a history of bare knuckle political brawling against Democrats who showed moderation on civil rights.  One of his first political victims was U.S. Senator Frank Porter Graham.  Appointed to the seat in 1949, Graham had to run for reelection in 1950 against two other opponents.  Graham got 49% of the primary vote, while his nearest competitor, former Speaker of the NC House Willis Smith, received 41%.  Smith was disinclined to challenge Graham with a runoff primary, but Helms led a campaign to convince Smith to continue his campaign.  Helms helped Smith during his runoff campaign, and out of nowhere appeared a political flier with a doctored photo of Graham's white wife dancing with a black man.  The caption on the flier said, "White People Wake Up!"  Graham, of course, lost the runoff to Smith.  Helms denied knowledge of the political flier, but those who knew Helms said if he did not produce the flier it had Helm's stamp of approval.

Later, during the 1960s and early 70s, Helms was a frequent commentator on Raleigh's WRAL TV.  His diatribes on desegregation and a host of other liberal policies made him a well known figure in NC.  After Strom Thurmond jumped shipped and became a Republican, Helms did the same and ran for the U.S. Senate in 1972.  

Helm's knew from his career in radio and TV that openly racist comments were not the way to win political office in the 1970s.  The violence of Southern whites against blacks during the 1960s was caught on camera, and those who used racial slurs were associated with the worst aspects of white racism.  In other words, it was no longer OK to call blacks the N word, at least by white politicians running for higher office.  So Helms readily adapted the Southern Strategy for winning votes.

And Helm's was a master of this political strategy.  Helms would gleefully oppose all the issues that pissed off racist whites - court ordered busing, welfare, crime, and affirmative action to name a few.  You will notice how all those issues revolve around race or are perceived to benefit blacks at the expense of whites.

And if stressing policy issues that disgruntled white voters opposed wasn't enough of a signal that "I'm with you against the blacks," Helms would utilize a term for minorities and others that Southern white voters felt animosity toward:  the bloc vote.  Helms would lump civil rights organizations, labor unions, teachers, and liberals and anyone else not a conservative into the "bloc vote."  Helms would always say that the bloc vote was against him or supporting legislation that was harmful to NC.

It was not subtle, but it worked.

Meanwhile, so called white swing voters would not pick up on Helm's racist policies.  Besides, many of those NC swing voters probably didn't care much for what they considered wasteful government spending on welfare.  Also, who wanted to have their kids bused clear across town to another school?  Helms could use such arguments with the white swing voter on a number of issues, and it sure didn't sound racist to them.

Cynical?  You bet.  But white swing voters in NC at that time were primarily disaffected conservative Democrats who just didn't bother to switch their voter registration to Republican.  And they had all the typical biases against blacks, but they were not about to go out and actively engage in overt acts of racism or racial violence.  However, these same voters could not in good conscience vote for someone openly racist.

So we had Helms promoting policies that hurt the black community, but Helms never was caught on camera saying a racial slur.  In fact, Helms was so disciplined at hiding his bigotry that he wasn't caught in private saying the N word when he was in office.  Helms had a word that he employed for the N word:  Freds.

A reporter from that liberal den of iniquity The Wall Street Journal reported Helm's affection for the word Freds.  When a black constituent would write or call about some matter, Helm's would ask one of his staffers, "What does that Fred want?"  There would be no "gotcha" moment for Jesse Helms on race.

Without some video evidence of Helm's using the N word, the media could never firmly conclude or assert that Helm's was a racist.  The belief that you can't know what is in someone's mind or heart still rules in many quarters of the media.  And it is a rule that is adopted by the low information swing voter.  

So here we had Jesse Helms dancing on the racial divide line, but he never crossed it openly.  When confronted by a African American candidate in 1990s, Helms stooped to two other tactics to win reelection.  The first was to hire James Meredith and use him to attack the Democratic candidate, Harvey Gantt.  How could Helms be a racist when he hired James Meredith?  

And if that wasn't enough, Helms played the infamous "hands" commercial about affirmative action.  For those too young, Helms showed some white applicant for a job being given a letter from a supposed employer rejecting the applicant.  The hands are shown crumbling the letter and a voice over says that affirmative action was responsible for the rejection.

Helms won reelection.  Oh, and he fired James Meredith immediately afterwards.  Meredith claimed that it was a mutual parting of the ways, but no one with a brain believed it.  Well, white swing voters believed it.

Anyway, Helms mastered the technique of being a racist politician without offending enough voters to pay a price at the ballot box.  And to this day, NC Republicans still revere Helms and his tactics.  It is a lesson many of the GOP have taken to heart.

Originally posted to Merlin1963 on Sat May 17, 2014 at 09:37 PM PDT.

Also republished by North Carolina BLUE.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Easiest vote I ever cast (9+ / 0-)

    was for Jim Hunt (Democrat) against Jesse Helms. When I lived in NC. Hunt was a moderate Democrat and former Governor of NC. Hunt would have been a good Senator. This was back in the 1980s.

    But to tell the truth, if an earthworm was running against Jesse Helms, I would have voted for the worm. I would have voted for anyone running against Helms. I hated Helms.

    "Stupid just can't keep its mouth shut." -- SweetAuntFanny's grandmother.

    by Dbug on Sat May 17, 2014 at 11:05:47 PM PDT

  •  May he rot in hell. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Youffraita, bepanda, sfbob

    (That sound you are hearing is a paradigm being shifted at Warp Factor Infinity using no clutch.)

    by homogenius on Sun May 18, 2014 at 12:34:05 AM PDT

  •  So I'm hanging out in this (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sfbob, historys mysteries

    lesbian bar in the Village, and get into a conversation with these two tourist lesbians from NC.

    And they're fans of Jesse Helms. Okay, they're white, so there's that...but Helms was NO fan of dykes, either, iirc.

    And I am thinking WHY are these two otherwise apparently intelligent women going with this dickhead, to the point of volunteering for him?

    It was obvious even then that he would have opposed everything about them...except the fact that they were white.

    I have never understood that. Except for being Helms fans & volunteers, they were nice in every way.

    Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. If you know what I mean.

    English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment and education - sometimes it's sheer luck, like getting across the street. E. B. White

    by Youffraita on Sun May 18, 2014 at 12:59:32 AM PDT

    •  maybe they liked large piles of dead peasants (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      historys mysteries

      and nuns.  Sorry but Jesse sure did and made sure his "proteges" had plenty of bullets to go around.  Dante would have to make up a special circle for Jesse because evidence is that he knew his policies were causing massacres and did not care  

      •  entlord, NO (0+ / 0-)

        They were very nice. You would like them if you didn't know their politics.

        Hell, they were in The Village! Whence scary Southerners fear to tread!

        English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment and education - sometimes it's sheer luck, like getting across the street. E. B. White

        by Youffraita on Sun May 18, 2014 at 04:52:04 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  given the actions of the House the past couple (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          of years, I would say scary people own DC

          •  Well, yes. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            But this was about twenty years ago that I met them.

            And I remain perplexed: how do people not only vote against their own self-interest, but actively work against it by trying to get all those Jesse Helmses reelected?

            English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment and education - sometimes it's sheer luck, like getting across the street. E. B. White

            by Youffraita on Sun May 18, 2014 at 06:15:24 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  I remember Jesse being referred to as a " man of (6+ / 0-)

    little intelligence, less intellect and yet less conscience and no compassion"

    However, if we can credit Newt with the current ugly face of the GOP, we can also thank Jesse for his willingness to climb to power, literally, over the piles of bodies of others.  His biggest mistake was to leave the Ag committee and instead move to Foreign Affairs.  The farmers never forgave him.

    Speaking of Jesse, his spiritual heirs persist as seen by this particularly low-life who slipped into a SNF to take pictures of Thad Cochran's wife who is in the final, catatonic stages of dementia.  (This is especially egregious to me as my wife also died the same way)

    He posted the pics online on his blog, evidently for a "gotcha" attack on Cochran; this is the level that the GOP has sunk as it feasts on its own.

    •  Credit For the Ugly GOP Face Can't Be Awarded (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      entlord, quill, historys mysteries

      much later than the mid 1960's to the Goldwater circle and thereabouts that got the rightwing revolution going. And that would include Kochs among other financial powerhouses.

      There was never a way forward for them without a populist arm, and any populist front for oligarchy necessarily requires ethnic and sectarian hatred among the people.

      I would say Newt is responsible for the face of the GOP in the same way that W Bush is responsible for the Iraq & Afghanistan wars.

      Enough for serious blame; not enough to be a fall guy.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Sun May 18, 2014 at 05:13:23 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  One of Helms favorite tactics (5+ / 0-)

    was to block judicial nominations that he didn't like, especially for the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals which hears NC cases. It's the same tactic used by today's Senate Republicans to block Obama's nominees.

    However, Helms' strategy backfired. Today, the 4th Circuit has just 2 active senior judges serving - the fewest of any circuit - and a 9-5 Democratic majority thanks to 5 Obama nominees, plus another that's pending for a vacancy.

    Helms' unwavering ideology helped to leave seats open for the nations first African American president to fill.

    Karma's a bitch, Senator Helms.

    Election Day is Nov 4th, 2014 It's time for the Undo button on the 2010 Election.

    by bear83 on Sun May 18, 2014 at 06:51:58 AM PDT

  •  Jesse has been reincarnated in the form of a (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    quill, sfbob, historys mysteries

    rectum with teeth who is currently running for Congress in North Carolina.  His name is Rouzer and he was a legislative assistant to the thankfully now dead Helms.  Rouzer won the recent primary between himself and another turd in the punchbowl who campaigned on biblethumping, more gunz, and repealing Obamacare.  Rouzer is supported / mentored by the smarmy Eric Cantor.  His opponent was supported by Mike Huckabee, patron saint of douchebaggery and apocalyptic flatulence.  

    Rouzer will be running against a Democrat named Barfield...who, as of yet, has failed to mount a campaign of any significance.  

    Rouzer is favored to win.  This should come as no surprise in a state where rural stores advertise new arrivals of Duck Dynasty Camo sofas and recliners.  I assume, although I've not had the pleasure of actually seeing such a magnificent article of home decor, that there are options for spittoons, beer holders and quick-draw holsters...with right or left-handed preferences.


    The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis. - Dante Alighieri

    by Persiflage on Sun May 18, 2014 at 07:03:57 AM PDT

  •  I have only one regret about Helms... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    wordwraith, sfbob, historys mysteries

    That he died in the summer of 2008, a few months before Obama was elected. I really wanted to see that worthless old bigot's face when he realized he had to call a black man "Mr. President."

    Of course, had he lived until then, the shock might have killed him.

  •  Filibutered MLK holiday (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sfbob, historys mysteries

    fought for the aparthiad goverment in South Africa - he was quite a prize

    •  He opposed Roberta Achtenberg's nomination (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      historys mysteries

      as Assistant Secretary of HUD for no other reason than she was a "damn lesbian." Which is the expression he used DURING HER CONFIRMATION. TO HER FACE.

      Despite Helms' treatment of her she went on to become the first out lesbian to be confirmed to a presidential appointment. I took particular delight in that. Other parts of Helms's homophobic legacy took longer to undo.

  •  Helms was also instrumental in forging the (0+ / 0-)

    alliance between the Evangelical Christianist right and the GOP.

  •  Being a homophobe was acceptable (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    historys mysteries

    When Helms was bashing the LGBT community, it was OK to call them sodomites and immoral, which he did on many an occasion.  The incredible hypocrisy of Helms on his hatred of the LGBT community was the man who created the infamous hands commercial in 1990 is gay. In fact, he lives with his boyfriend in Connecticut, and they have adopted a child.

  •  There was just one thing (0+ / 0-)

    I could say about Jesse Helms as a politician: At least you knew where he stood.

    When lots of people show up to vote, Democrats tend to win.

    by Audri on Mon May 19, 2014 at 09:19:21 AM PDT

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