He was, in short, a type. A type that will be familiar to those who grew up with Southerners wedded to the most unjust, self-serving, short-sighted racial and class mores of these latitudes, yet personally without animus - except perhaps toward those sophisticates who thought they could condescend to him.
Jesse Helms was a kind of knight-errant, sometimes very errant - a combination of the modern businessman and feudal noble inseparably interwoven. The kind of man who made the best of friends, and the worst of enemies. He was good and evil blended - that is, human.
Like the South itself, Jesse Helms was a mix of sun and shade. You couldn't have one without the other: the courage without the stubbornness, the pride without the excess. He reflected both the light and dark sides of the land, history and society from which he sprang. He was a member of a distinctive sub-species of homo politicus, the Populist Harrumpher.
The breed was once common in the southern United States, but it now has given way to smoother, less edgy types. The Americanization of Southern politics proceeds steadily, gaining in decorum what it loses in the picturesque as hypocrisy replaces candor.
Jesse Helms was no puzzle; he was a natural. And nature can be uncannily strange, even a contradiction, to those who seek to understand it only from the outside, and not from within - on its own terms. Which is why what mystifies the scientist may be clear to the humanist.
What a piece of work is man, to quote an English playwright who seemed to have understood every human type from the inside out. Ol' Jesse might have lent comic relief to one of Shakespeare's tragedies, like the porter stumbling into the bloodiest act in Macbeth. Or he might have provided one of those profound insights you find smack in the middle of one of Shakespeare's comedies. But in any role, he would have been unmistakably himself. If he was a piece of work, Jesse Helms was also all of a piece.