Conventional wisdom shows us that when a politician makes a personal connection with a citizen, and provides a personal service – the politician will gain that citizen’s support regardless of whatever differences they may have on the issues. To Senator Jesse Helms’ credit, he was one of the first modern politicians to fully grasp this concept. The constituent services provided by Senator Helms and his staff were nothing short of legendary. These services were so far and above what his counterparts from either party in North Carolina offered, that the Southern Male Democrat constantly steered friends who needed help to the Helms’ office when I lived in Washington, DC.
Fortunately, that one enduring quality didn’t faze me in the least and I’ve spent most of my professional life fighting everything that Senator Helms stood for. The lefty blogsphere is no doubt going to explode this weekend with knee-jerk recitations of the man’s racist and fear-mongering politics. While most of what is written will be factually correct, it will ignore the larger question of – why? I’ve got a few thoughts on that question.
Senator Helms was without a doubt, one of the nicest people I ever met in politics. Since I worked and lived in Washington, I actually interacted with the Senator from time to time, mainly via North Carolina political and social circles. (We even attended the same church in Alexandria – a fact that my Father loved to tease me about.) He had great old political stories about North Carolina. Those brief encounters gave me the opportunity to separate the person from the politics.
What stood out the most was that Senator Helms was largely a product of his times. He grew up in an era and a society where white, devoutly Christian Protestants ran everything. These people didn’t need the government to help them. They certainly didn’t need the government to interfere and ensure fairness for minorities. After all, the Negroes were treated with kindness as long as they kept their place. The federal government should instead busy itself with protecting the Christian nation America from the god-less communists.
Granted, I am being a little tongue in cheek, but my point is this – Senator Helms may have been steadfast in pursuing principles that many of us find reprehensible, but it wasn’t borne out of some sinister desire. Rather, Helms fought for the world and values that he knew – against a strong tide going the other way. The fact that he could be elected five times speaks to the fact that many of his fellow native North Carolinians were going through the same struggle.
Deeply ingrained values can only change through the passage of time. In many ways, it is fitting that the Helms era would end in a year when America is poised to elect our first African-American President. We can almost hear the pages of history turning.