If you had read the major newspapers in North Carolina over the past 30 years, you might have wondered how a man with virtually nothing to commend him had been reelected to the United States Senate four times.
To the press, Senator Jesse Helms was a “troglodyte,” a “racist,” “Senator No,” and a “fluke.” To the liberals who opposed him, he was often much worse. As a result, the press and liberals never failed to act surprised when Helms won reelection again and again.
It is with no small amount of amusement that Helms documents their years of bewilderment in his memoir, Here’s Where I Stand (the title implies “For the last time, folks”). It’s a bit of a wink and nod to those who have understood him, and a last invitation to “get him” for those who never did.
It’s unlikely that a lot of the latter will take him up on it, but they misunderstand Helms at their own risk. Helms is a man who knew print media would suffer for its lack of immediacy in the mid-‘40s, at which point he switched from a job behind the typewriter to one behind the microphone.
Helms saw a need for a conservative voice in liberal-dominated media in 1958, when he started broadcasting editorials on television in Raleigh, North Carolina on the “value of self-reliance, the virtue of limited government, and the danger of Communism.”
And, he had learned by the early ‘70s how to trumpet his conservative values to earn the votes of Southern Democrats who hadn’t voted for a Republican in generations. In North Carolina, they call those folks Jessecrats. Those same disaffected Democrats, were won over again by Ronald Reagan in the ‘80s and that is much of the reason the South is solidly red today.
Helms was present for the start of the Moral Majority, pioneered the use of direct mail as a fundraising source, and was a precursor to the conservative revolution in Washington.
Here’s Where I Stand is a matter-of-fact, often funny journey through the politics of the late 20th century. It’s also a look at a different side of the senator than the barking ideologue media portrayals. This Helms offers optimism and laughs to temper the steel backbone he brought to Washington.
Many of Helms’ brushes with history and its figures are nothing short of remarkable.
For instance, when Ronald Reagan was touring the country as host of the General Electric Theater in the early ‘60s, he dropped by the Raleigh television station where Helms had recently started editorializing. Reagan asked Helms:
“Are you going to run for office one of these days?” I said no, I didn’t have any plans to do that — but I sure hoped that he would. After a moment of reflection, [Reagan] said, “I’m thinking about it.”