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Death of a Type

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Sample some of the obituary tributes/denunciations written after Jesse Helms' death at 86, and you'd think the five-term senator from North Carolina must have been twins. And not identical ones.


One Jesse Helms grew up to be a Southern gentleman, unfailingly generous and fair - to all - in his personal relationships.

He would be an early and foresighted supporter of Ronald Reagan's campaign to restore American confidence - not to mention the American economy - after the disastrous Carter years.

An outspoken patriot, he put some backbone into the nation's foreign policy once he was in a position to do so as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In his latter years he would prove a stalwart campaigner against AIDS and a vigorous supporter of programs to alleviate poverty in Africa. The man was capable of rising above his prejudices.

If there was one constant of his political career, it was his unfailing determination to expose the brazen hypocrisy and rampant corruption at the United Nations, where no dictatorship seems to go unflattered.

Let it be noted that, right or wrong (and he somehow could be both at the same time), Jesse Helms never hesitated to stand up for what he believed, even if he had to stand alone.

In short, the man was a kind of fighting saint.

Then there was the other Jesse Helms, his evil twin. That Jesse was a racist demagogue who exploited the deepest fears of his constituents, perhaps because he shared them.

His political tactics were as crude as they were effective. A familiar type in these latitudes, the populist agitator, he divided to conquer. He would do or say just about anything to win. That included stirring up fear and hatred of homosexuals by exploiting the panic over a then-new plague called AIDS. In many respects, he was a throwback to the worst of the bad old days.


In short, the man was a hopeless sinner.

Which was the real Jesse Helms? Both were, of course. Indeed, you couldn't have had one without the other. The same courage, or maybe just mischievousness, that led Sen. Helms to defend the worst ideas also moved him to fight for the best. Yet his was a thoroughly integrated personality, always at ease in his own skin.

Jesse Helms didn't have to take a poll to find out what folks were thinking; he only had to interview himself. He was a populist not only by design but instinct, if a middle-class one. Think of him as a redneck in coat-and-tie, with all that species' vices - and virtues.

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.

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