Friday, July 04, 2008

Jesse "Senator No" Helms Dead at 86

The country is a little more compassionate today because one of our most strident bigots is dead. Jesse Helms, the former North Carolina senator, is dead at 86.

Nicknamed "Senator No", Helms built his extremist conservative career opposing civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, foreign aid and modern art. Helms opposed providing assistance to people who had fallen on hard times, once proposing that funds for welfare be cut in half.

The New York Times reports:

“I didn’t come to Washington to be a yes man for any President, Democrat or Republican,” he said in an interview in 1989. “I didn’t come to Washington to get along and win any popularity contests.”

Perhaps his most visible accomplishments in the Senate came two decades apart. One was a 1996 measure that tightened trade sanctions against the Marxist government of Fidel Castro in Cuba. The other, a 1973 amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, prevented American money from going to international family planning organizations that, in his words, “provide or promote” abortion. He also introduced amendments to reduce or eliminate funds for foreign aid, welfare programs and the arts. [...]

In the 1980’s he took on the National Endowment for the Arts for subsidizing art that he found offensive, chiefly that of the homosexual photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and of the artist Andres Serrano over his depiction of a crucifix submerged in urine. He later led an ill-fated attempt to take over CBS, exhorting conservatives to buy up stock in order to stop what he saw as a liberal bias in its news reporting.

He was also well known for holding up votes on treaties and appointments to win a point. His willingness to block the business of the Senate or the will of Presidents earned him the sobriquet “Senator No” — a label he relished. [...]

He fought bitterly against Federal aid for AIDS research and treatment, saying the disease resulted from “unnatural” and “disgusting” homosexual behavior.

“Nothing positive happened to Sodom and Gomorrah,” he said, “and nothing positive is likely to happen to America if our people succumb to the drumbeats of support for the homosexual lifestyle.” [...]
In 1993 Helms had a run-in with Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, a freshman senator from Illinois and the first African American woman elected to the Senate. Moseley-Braun led the opposition to Helms' proposal to renew the United Daughters of the Confederacy's design patent on an insignia featuring the original flag of the Confederacy.

The patent had expired, and the Senate Judiciary Committee refused to renew the design patent. (Moseley-Braun was a member of that committee.) Helms then decided to attach legislation for the design patent as an amendment (Amendment 610) to the National Service Bill. His comments to the full Senate were that the Judiciary Committee's previous action was "An unintended rebuke aimed at 24,000 ladies who belong to the United Daughters of the Confederacy who work together as unpaid volunteers at veteran's hospitals and many, many other places" (Congressional Record, 1993, S9251). The Senate then prepared to vote on the bill, which would have guaranteed passage of Amendment 610 as well.

Before the vote could take place, Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, the first African American woman elected to the Senate, was pulled by her staffers out of Judiciary Committee hearings and notified that the United Daughters of the Confederacy's (UDC) request for patent renewal was being re-introduced as Amendment 610. To her surprise, it was about to be voted on in the full Senate. Moseley-Braun rushed to the main floor to try to stop the vote.
I can still remember Senator Moseley-Braun taking the microphone that day and refusing to give it up. Word quickly spread through the NOW office and we all rushed to the conference room to watch what was happening on C-SPAN.

Her filibuster on the Senate floor that day led to protests from some of her colleagues who at first were unwilling to challenge Helms. They repeatedly asked her to give up the microphone, to which she replied: "I've got the mic and you've got the problem." It was clear she was NOT going to give up control of the mic until she had the votes needed to defeat the bill.

Rob Richie at The Center for Voting and Democracy noted: "After Moseley-Braun argued in an impassioned speech that the confederate flag was an emblem of slavery, the Senate, which had earlier approved the patent, reversed itself and voted 75 to 25 to reject it."

THAT is the kind of passion missing from the Senate today.

Probably more widely known was Sen. Helm's use of racism to defeat challenger Harvey Gantt.

Trailing in a tough re-election fight in 1990 against a black opponent, Harvey Gantt, the former mayor of Charlotte, Mr. Helms unveiled a nakedly racial campaign ad in which a pair of hands belonging to a white job-seeker crumpled a rejection slip as an announcer explained that the job had been given to an unqualified member of a minority. Mr. Helms went on to victory.
One of the first events I attended as a new staffer at the National Organization for Women was a fundraiser for Harvey Gantt. There is no question the country would have been much better served by a "Senator" Gantt, than we ever were by Jesse Helms. The NOW national conference is coming up in a few weeks, and I fully expect to see some of the participants sporting "Helms NO" T-shirts, buttons and tote bags. They've been a staple for the 20 years I've been a member.



FranIAm said...

I hate feeling bitterly about the dead, but... He inspires bitterness.


Anonymous said...

He was a racist all his life. A person who doesn't deserve a televised funeral but he'll get one in NC.