It’s been a thin time for Senator Jesse Helms, laid up in bed at the Inova Fairfax Hospital near Washington. Late last month, Helms had open-heart surgery to replace a prosthetic mitral valve inserted a decade ago. Prior to surgery, Helms was off his feed, tired and weak. Doctors offered detailed medical analyses of Helms’ condition, but in the end it came down to a fact of animal husbandry the senator himself was sure to appreciate: The average natural lifespan of sus domesticus, the common pig, is 10 years. If, like Helms, you have a 10-year-old pig valve separating your left atrium from your left ventricle, it is time to get a new one. If, like Helms, you are 80 years old, recuperation from the procedure can be a dicey affair.
Which is just what it’s been. With only a few months left in Helms’ final term as U.S. senator, doctors continue to predict that he’ll return to Washington, but their predictions sound cautious, “for-the-record.” Bedside reports indicate that Helms recognizes family members, and that he has thus far warded off the scarier complications of stroke, pneumonia and additional heart failure. But he has remained under heavy sedation, left speechless by a tracheotomy. Most seriously, doctors had been unable to wean him from the ventilator until just a few days ago.
Folks are concerned. Get-well cards pour into the Senate office building in Washington; Bono has sent words of encouragement. Here in Durham, outside the Dunkin’ Donuts on Roxboro Road, Tuck Lilley and his daughter Brenda hold a copy of the local paper, catching up on Helms’ condition. Brenda reads out loud to her father, who grimaces at the nearby interstate traffic. “OL’ JESS, HA!” He shouts at nobody in particular. “HE’LL BE BACK, BET YOUR MAMA’S SILK-LINED CASKET ON IT.” Brenda puts a calming hand on his arm. “It just gives you a sadness,” she says to me. “Jesse Helms is like family. He’s like your Uncle Jesse.”
I know just what she means because, for much of my childhood in Raleigh, and for many children growing up within range of the WRAL-TV signal, Helms was Uncle Jesse. My father had little use for television; the exceptions were FBI and Viewpoint, Helms’ nightly commentary on the local news station. I remember Helms’ voice more than his face–that pixilated drawl that seemed to originate in the moist folds of his pouched cheeks. Jesse Helms was jowly before he had jowls. Every night before supper, he would learn us the evils of Communist Cuba, “sex perverts” and “Negro hoodlums.” He made it sound as if an army of shiftless scum were that moment storming the very gates of civilization, threatening all of us who were God-fearing, hard-working and decent-living.
It’s important to understand, 30 years later, the familiarity of this rhetoric in the late 60s, and how the South–especially the rural South–has always suffered and indulged cranky, bigoted old men who position themselves as sentinels to the coming Apocalypse. Ordinarily, these prophets reach the peak of their career on the dirt stoop of a crumbling gas station, preaching to hapless passers-by and a bald yard dog. Uncle Jesse was smart, though, a real go-getter. When Willis Smith ran for Senate in 1950, Jesse signed onto the campaign as an unofficial researcher. He then allegedly cut-and-pasted a photo of the incumbent’s wife dancing with a black man. Smith won, and Helms went to Washington with him.
Twenty-two years later, Helms won his first term in the Senate. It was 1972; politically and culturally, the country’s center was not holding. There were race riots, Cold-War tensions, flower children dancing on the White House lawn. It was the perfect setup for a man in touch with the heart of human paranoia; a politician out to salve the wounds of the aggrieved white Southerner; a champion of God, family, country and price supports. Jesse found his spot on the Senate floor and dug in. Times changed; presidents and dictators came and went; walls toppled; empires softened. But Jesse Helms stayed put and stayed true to his lights. For 30 years now he has horrified, delighted, amused, enraged and mystified. And always, always, with the subtlety of a sandwich man for Jesus.
These last few years, as Helms has approached 80, there have been some touch-and-go moments. He has suffered from prostate cancer, a degenerative bone disorder, peripheral neuropathy. He’s had double-knee replacement and been ordered to give up cigarettes and streak o’ lean sandwiches. His heart has always been about as sound as a two-dollar watch, requiring valve replacements and bypass surgery. His arteries resemble I-40 on a Friday afternoon.
With each scare, North Carolinians have prepared to mourn, or to pop the finest champagne they could afford. Yet Helms always bounced back, full of piss and vinegar and riding hell-for-leather around Washington on his motorized scooter. (After receiving his first pig valve Jesse told reporters that every plate of barbecue made him cry, since it could be one of his relatives.)
Adoring conservatives called him a tough old coot and cheered his comebacks. Disappointed liberals tried to write him off as a crustily impotent despot. Like Shelley’s George III: an “old mad blind despised and dying king.”
Now, it seems, Helms may finally be at the water’s edge. Not dying, in the strictest sense, but, with the curtain falling on his infamous reign, weak, voiceless and fighting for breath.
I always found Jesse Helms to be meaner than a water moccasin in May, but like a lot of his detractors I feel a grudging affection for him as well. He is a peckerwood son-of-a-bitch who leaves behind a disgraceful legacy, not to mention the human remains chalked up on his fuselage. He is also, when it suits him, genteel, compassionate, kind and solicitous.
It’s possible that, with all the dragons that dwell in Jesse’s heart, I am too anxious to spot the few lambs. It’s also true that Slobodan Milosevic is said to be a charming dinner guest. But with Helms, these virtues, though not consistently applied, seem to exist on a deeper, more real strata. As U.S. senator, he never lifted a finger for disabled people. But he adopted, loved and cared for a boy with cerebral palsy. He faithfully answers letters from his constituents, helps people in crisis and catastrophe. When News & Observer columnist Dennis Rogers was mourning the unexpected death of his daughter last summer, Helms called him up at home. In all his years at the N&O, Rogers had never written a kind word about the senator; but, as he wrote in a column to Jesse, that was irrelevant in the face of Rogers’ grief. “A constituent was in pain,” Rogers wrote, “and you were gentleman enough to reach out.”
Also–and this is a painful truth–Jesse Helms represents North Carolina. Not all of it–not Chapel Hill or West Durham or inner-Beltline Raleigh. Never, in fact, more than 55 percent of it, according to election results. But 55 percent is a lot of people, and it’s a mistake to write them off as a bunch of religious fanatics, corrupt tobacco barons or yokels riddled with hookworm. I’ve been kin to and friendly with lots of Jesse Helms supporters. They suffer certain lapses in judgment, perhaps, but they aren’t idiots. I’ve often wondered why liberals didn’t pay more attention to Jesse’s faithful. It’s true Jesse has done the Confederate Reel on the backs of poor and vulnerable populations, at home and abroad, but we would do well to remember who brought him to the dance. And to ask why.
At my house we’ve been watching a lot of Batman reruns–the Adam West Batman of the 1960s, before he got steroids and went Hollywood. The episodes are heavily formulaized, and one piece of the formula has the bad guy pausing as he prepares to drop the Caped Crusader into a vat of boiling acid, or flay him alive or impale him on a giant umbrella. It is a tender moment, as the villain realizes he is about to lose a worthy opponent.
Jesse Helms has been a worthy opponent, in part because of his absolute certainty that the tripe he offers up is God’s unvarnished truth; in part because he has packaged and marketed his fiendishness so successfully. “I want to say he’s a fart in a windstorm,” a friend of mine once said, glumly, after Helms had succeeded in blocking another judicial candidate. “But all I can say is that he’s a fart.”
He’s been a worthy opponent, too, because, in the full-Monty of his viciousness, he so clearly defines the Enemy. With Helms you know what bigotry, corruption and greed look like and sound like. You know what they smell like. With somebody like him in office, insouciance isn’t an option. He doesn’t let you forget, even for a minute, the battles that are yet to be won.
The first time I saw Jesse Helms in person was at a political function in Raleigh, sometime in the mid 1970s. I was a kid and he was a brand-new U.S. senator, standing in a parking lot with a peach in his hand.
A small crowd, maybe a dozen people, gathered around and asked him how were things. He said him and the boys were out to make some changes up in Washington, and a woman in the crowd called out that the Lord would evermore shore him up. Jesse said he counted on it.
The Lord has always figured prominently in Jesse’s political life. Asked once to reconcile his intolerance with his faith, Jesse said that if Christ had been more tolerant of his enemies, he might never have taken up the cross. Another time, pressed to say whether he’d run for re-election, he said that the only thing he knew for sure he was running for was the kingdom of heaven.
Jesse’ll likely surprise us all again, drive his scooter onto the Senate floor and whip out a final can of whoop-ass. But the kingdom is closer than it used to be, and there are a lot of people speculating on what it will hold for the senior senator. Helms himself has remained mulishly unrepentant of his many crimes, but perhaps Jesus will meet him at the pearly gates with a rehabilitation counselor, a kind of celestial Bono capable of showing Helms the error of his ways.
I hope they don’t humble him too much, though; I hope they leave him a suggestion of eternal impertinence. And that Uncle Jesse, penitent but still sassy, can spend his Final Reward sitting back with the boys and a streak o’ lean sandwich, chewing the fat.
Next month, Melinda Ruley will begin a leave of absence from her column. We look forward to her return.