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Helms.jpgIf Strom Thurmond represented the old seg South, Jesse Helms embodied its transition to the “values voting” South of today. He never gave up appealing to race: His 1990 ad showing white hands crumpling a rejection letter (“You needed that job,” the narrator said, “but they had to give it to a minority.”) was the lineal descendant of the traditional, and almost always successful, Southern Bourbon warnings that the biggest threat to poor whites came from blacks eager to take their places in the mills.
But his special gift was for the social issues that came to define and shape post-civil rights Southern conservatism. In 1973, the very year of the Roe v. Wade decision and years before abortion became the defining issue of a national religious right, he sponsored an amendment denying federal funds for international family planning agencies that supported abortion. He was also quick to recognize the political efficacy of anti-homosexuality, that other pillar of social conservatism, and only at the end of his career was he willing to support AIDS research. (He wrote to one constituent, who had asked him not to judge her son who had died of AIDS, “I know that Mark’s death was devastating to you. As for homosexuality, the Bible judges it, I do not.… As for Mark, I wish he had not played Russian roulette with his sexual activity.”)
Helms anticipated the era of conservative talk radio. He started out as a radio sports announcer, and it was as a radio opinionator that he made himself known to North Carolinians. His senatorial campaigns invented the kind of precisely targeted appeals that Karl Rove later specialized in, making it possible to win victories, albeit narrow ones, without blunting the sharp edges or “moving to the center.” The obits make a point of emphasizing Helms’ courtliness to colleagues, his personal generosity to individuals in need. He wasn’t the first demagogue to be kindly in private, vile in public.