Jesse Helms

Former North Carolina senator and bigot extraordinaire Jesse Helms has died. Normally, I’d be inclined to heed the kindergarten-vintage “if you don’t have anything nice to say” advice, given as this is the guy who whistled Dixie to Carol Moseley-Braun and aired the hands ad, among other things. But it turns out I do have something nice to say, just not about Helms. The announcement of Helms’ retirement led to the last halfway decent David Broder column, which is to say the last Broder column to be based on anything resembling principle or conviction. Allow me to quote:

Those who believe that the “liberal press” always has its knives sharpened for Republicans and conservatives must have been flummoxed by the coverage of Sen. Jesse Helms’s announcement last week that he will not run for reelection next year in North Carolina. The reporting on his retirement was circumspect to the point of pussyfooting.

On the day his decision became known, the New York Times described him as “a conservative stalwart for nearly 30 years,” the Boston Globe as “an unyielding icon of conservatives and an archenemy of liberals.” The Washington Post identified Helms as “one of the most powerful conservatives on Capitol Hill for three decades.”

Those were accurate descriptions. But they skirted the point. There are plenty of powerful conservatives in government. A few, such as Don Rumsfeld and Henry Hyde, have been around as long as Helms and have their own significant roles in 20th century political history. What really sets Jesse Helms apart is that he is the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country — a title that one hopes will now be permanently retired. A few editorials and columns came close to saying that. But the squeamishness of much of the press in characterizing Helms for what he is suggests an unwillingness to confront the reality of race in our national life.

Read the whole thing. It’s a beautiful thing to see the pinnacle of Washington nicety eschew politeness for once in favor of what’s right.

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