Is Jesse Helms’ retirement the end of an era? Not really. It was fitting, in fact, that on the same day the senator announced that he will not seek re-election in 2002, a state legislator from Harnett County, Rep. Don Davis, was forced to apologize for spreading–via the Internet–the same brand of crypto-Christian racism that brought Helms fame back when TV was brand new. The era of white-is-right lives on–mostly in the privacy of one’s home, of course. On the other hand, the era when white folks could make undisguised claims of godly virtue in public ended a while ago.

No one, apparently, told Davis, who sent his legislative colleagues an e-mail produced by GOAL (God’s Order Affirmed in Love) which said white Christian men made America great, albeit after the Catholics had enslaved Europe. Just “FYI,” Davis shrugged when some legislators denounced him. But finally he did apologize.

Helms, though, got the message that his undiluted racism had become unacceptable to the majority of folks as far back as 1984, when he almost lost his Senate seat to Jim Hunt despite the landslide victory of Ronald Reagan at the top of the Republican ticket. Without racisim he was an empty shell. It could be said that his era ended then.

Until ’84, Helms had been riding the conservative wave that arose in the ’50s with the South’s stiffening racial politics and then swept the country in the ’60s as a backlash to black riots and Vietnam War protests. He made his place in history bashing blacks and their fellow travelers (“the massive bloc vote”), right up to filibustering the Senate in a vain effort to block the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday–on grounds that King was a Marxist.

That went too far, and it nearly ended Helms’ career. After ’84, the free-swinging Helms disappeared, replaced by a hit-and-run Helms who specialized in attack ads at election time, supplemented by the occasional tirade against gays and lesbians. To the extent that he has any record at all, it is as the former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he spit into the winds of international cooperation and, memorably, blocked the appointment of the Republican governor of Massachusetts, William Weld, to be ambassador to Mexico. Weld never even got a hearing–but then, no one ever said Helms was fair.

By ducking out of sight, Helms, unlike Davis, has never been forced to offer an apology, about race or anything else, despite a record that warrants one. As The New York Times put it last week in an editorial: “Few senators in the modern era have done more to resist the tide of progress and enlightenment than Sen. Helms.” Helms opposes civil rights. He opposes women’s rights. He opposes gay rights. He’s been against every major piece of environmental legislation, every social program from food stamps to Social Security, and against every important international treaty since his election in 1972.

Nor did Helms offer any hint of reconsideration, let alone remorse, in his retirement statements. He told interviewer David Crabtree of WRAL that he couldn’t think of any really difficult decisions he’d ever had to make, only some “mildly difficult times” that he for the moment couldn’t remember. There was no olive branch of any kind for those he attacked, or those who attacked him. He thanked the “conservative, God-fearing young people” who’ve worked on his staff. He thanked “the great people of North Carolina.” He did not, however, attack Ted Kennedy or the “liberal media,” as he did in remarkably un-gracious victory speeches after the ’90 and ’96 elections.

In turn, Democrats wished Helms the best in his retirement, but also said, as Sen. John Edwards put it, that Helms leaving Washington “is a positive thing.”

To give him his due, Helms did not just ride the right-wing wave. He helped to build it in his early years with his slashing attacks on King, civil rights, women’s rights, and every other attempt to use the law–whether federal, state or local law–to curb the excesses of business or the discriminatory practices of Christian white men. He was instrumental in Reagan’s rise to power and the fall of sensible Republicanism.

The only rights Helms recognized were property rights and an unfettered right of religious freedom that not only sanctioned prejudice but precluded any legal effort to prevent it, according to the excellent 1986 Helms biography, Hard Right, by Baltimore Sun reporter Ernest Furgurson.

Thus, as a member of the Raleigh City Council (1957-61) Helms opposed “any intrusion by government at any level into the privacy of citizens.” He stood for “free enterprise,” first as legislative staffer to segregationist Sen. Willis Smith, next as executive officer of the North Carolina Bankers Association, and then, for 12 years starting in 1960, as news director and nightly editorialist on WRAL, Raleigh’s first television station.

On WRAL, Furgurson says, “Helms could be affable, and nostalgic, and overflowing with tender respect for some community figure or old and unthreatening black servant. But his trademark was anger.” He called the landmark 1964 civil rights bill “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress.” UNC-Chapel Hill was a regular target, along with “Negro and white beatnik students on integrated campuses” everywhere. Anything that threatened the existing order, he was against.

Helms was not an original thinker. He dropped out of college, never went back, and until he announced for the Senate in 1972, was always in the pay of wealthy patrons. This believer in free enterprise never actually had one.

What he did have according to Furgurson, was a knack for telling stories on TV in a way that cast his patrons–and Christian morality–as the victims of nefarious labor organizers, communists, intellectuals and proponents of civil rights. “By playing on their common dislikes and prejudices,” Furgurson says, “[Helms] persuaded working people that their needs were the same as those of men whose economic desires were in fact wholly the opposite.”

Always, appeals to government for the enforcement of civil rights were equated by Helms with communism and an attack on the personal liberties of society’s better folks. This sort of talk resonated with listeners back when, for example, R.J. Reynolds was a North Carolina company and WRAL a big media organization. Helms could portray the leaders of such companies as protecting hard-working Tar Heel families against outside agitators.

Such anti-government rhetoric is useless, though, in an age of multinational agribusinesses and AOL Time Warner. In his last two Senate terms, Helms’ distrust of government left him with no answers for small farmers seeking protection from the power of huge hog consolidators like Smithfield Foods. Even tobacco growers have been forced to grow under contract to corporations that no longer think of North Carolina as home. And Helms–tobacco’s friend–cannot stop it.

Occasionally, Helms has even been forced to make common cause with liberals who oppose international trade agreements that permit China, for example, to sell freely into American markets while Chinese workers have little freedom and no rights. Even so, Helms has been unable to protect the textile industry in the Carolinas–continuing job losses to foreign manufacturers is a major reason why, in the current economic slowdown, North Carolina’s unemployment rate is suddenly worse than the national average.

As national politics since the ’80s has focused on issues like health care, and what happens to patients when hospitals are taken over by chains and HMOs that are no longer local, Helms has had little to say and no influence. For North Carolinians, health care is an issue they need to take up with Sen. Edwards.

Helms’ retirement does not close an era, but it does assure that the 2002 Senate race need not look back to one long past. Time to look ahead.