TOM BONEY JR.: Column on Jesse Helms Unfairly Perpetuated 'Race Baiter' Theme
A column by Scott Mooneyham ("Jesse Helms' Legacy," Jan. 30) recycles the newest revisionism about the former senator -- that, to quote Mooneyham, "his lasting legacy will be his race-baiting, his use of race to drive wedges between people."
It was my privilege to work with Sen. Helms during 12 of his 30 years in the U.S. Senate, and I have grown weary of these blatantly revisionist attempts to dismiss and catalog Helms as some sort of misguided Southern politician who owed his electoral success to "race baiting."
Mooneyham is not alone, to be sure. A recent PBS television program on the senator's career, which he lauded in his column, took a similar slant, and a new biography by Professor William Link portrays the senator through a similar race-based prism.
These are revisionist, and invariably liberal, reinterpretations of Helms' views, positions, and motivations.
They both misrepresent him on issues that dealt, even tangentially, with race, and greatly exaggerate the role such issues played vis--vis his long and distinguished Senate career on a broad swath of issues, foreign and domestic.
It will be difficult to keep his long-standing political opponents -- many of whom reside in academia, the media, and the most liberal wings of the Democratic Party -- from succeeding in their efforts to redefine and mischaracterize him, his electoral success, and his legacy with racial overtones.
Now confined to a nursing facility in Raleigh and suffering from dementia, he is no longer able to joust and debate vigorously with his opponents -- something he was quite adept at doing during his career. He was always his own best advocate.
There are, in my view, several important national issues in which Helms was involved that are most frequently used in the dismissive liberal distortion of his positions and philosophy as "race baiting."
Probably the most often-cited example stems from the fact that Helms faced a black opponent, Harvey Gantt, in two out of his five races for U.S. Senate. As I recall, Charlotte's former mayor became widely known for being the first black to achieve the nomination of his party for a U.S. Senate seat in the South since Reconstruction.
In politics, when a white man defeats a black man, is it inherently a "race-baiting" campaign, as is sometimes suggested of the Helms-Gantt races?
(A contemporary note: It is interesting to observe the difficulties Sen. Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton have faced this year in campaigning against Sen. Barack Obama, the first black politician who appears to have a significant chance of winning his party's nomination, and potentially the White House. I suspect that if he is the Democratic nominee, the Republican presidential ticket will have an equally difficult time navigating the shoals of opposition to a historic black nominee -- without also drawing the epithet of "race baiting.")
Out of two statewide races against Gantt, the singular piece of "evidence" usually cited to "demonstrate" the alleged "race baiting" -- one which was also used by Mooneyham, but without any historical context -- is a television ad run by the Helms campaign to underscore the candidates' starkly different views on racial quotas in 1990.
Here's the key piece of missing context: President George H.W. Bush had vetoed legislation that posed as a new civil rights law shortly before the fall elections in 1990. In his veto statement, Bush said that "despite the use of the term 'civil rights' in the (bill's title), the bill actually employs a maze of highly legalistic language to introduce the destructive force of quotas into our nation's employment system."
Helms opposed the bill and supported Bush's veto; Gantt criticized Helms' position and said he favored the bill. Thus the campaign ad was a fact-based, issue-oriented message that highlighted very real differences between the candidates -- based on public policy issues, not either candidate's race.
As with many issues he championed, Helms was somewhat ahead of his time. Debate and litigation over affirmative action and quotas would continue for many years after 1990.
The Supreme Court has since generally found that race-based policies and practices (such as admission standards to the University of Michigan) may not give preference to one race over another, through quotas, for instance -- precisely the position Helms championed in the 1990 commercial.
Most North Carolinians -- black and white, liberal and conservative -- continue to oppose affirmative action and racial quotas, the same stand Helms took.
Tom Boney Jr. is editor and publisher of The Alamance News, a weekly newspaper in Graham. He worked for 12 years with Sen. Jesse Helms between 1976-1990, including stints on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
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