If there was a more repugnant figure in American politics this past half century than Jesse Helms, he or she does not immediately come to mind. And if there was a more influential figure in American politics in this past half century than Jesse Helms, save the guys who were elected president, and a few vice presidents and high cabinet secretaries, he or she doesn’t come readily to mind either. In a recent book, Sean Willentz has described the last thirty or so years as The Age of Reagan. But the Age of Helms might do as an alternative title; the Solid South reborn as a Republican bloc, and an aggressive anti-Communist and anti-terrorist foreign policy, for which conservative white southerners played as important a role as did the neocons who get all the credit or blame. (Helms was a powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.) Helms played a key role in Reagan’s victory, and in securing the South for the GOP. As Strom Thurmond not so gently crossed over into senility, it was Jesse Helms in the 1970s and 1980s who was the symbol of the unchanging, revanchist white South.
The triumph of the civil rights movement in the 1960s is sometimes described as a revolution, but it was a revolution that left the losers fully in control of state power, though they now had to let blacks use their bathrooms and water fountains. In many ways no group in American society emerged as greater victors from the 1960s than white southern men, who would come to dominate the Republican party as they never could the Democrats, while the Democrats, aware of their losses in the South, nominated several southern men in order to get their mojo back. After a century in which there were no southerners elected president (with the exception of the transplanted Virginian, Woodrow Wilson) from 1960 to the present there have been five southerners in the White House, along with two California enablers (Nixon, Reagan) who perfected the southern strategy. (This will be the first predidential election since 1984, and only the second since 1972, without a southerner as a candidate.)
Helms was so unsavory, so unrepentant in his racism, that his importance in shaping the contours of our age has often been forgotten, especially as the Republican Party has sought out more acceptable front men (Bush I and II) for their message. But Helms was in many ways the purest representative of the modern Republican Party, of which he was one the most important founders, a son of Dixie, one who accepted the changes of the mid-1960s merely as brutal necessities forced on the prostrate South, and spent the rest of his life trying to efface and evade its implications. Let us hope that we never see his like again, and that we can bury the Age of Helms a few months after its unlamented eponymous founder this November.