Jesse Helms' Passing -- the End of an Era?

By Becky Garrison 07-07-2008

Jesse HelmsAs a former North Carolinian, I have very mixed feelings regarding the death of Senator Jesse Helms. When my late grandfather Roy B. Clogston was the athletic director of NC State from 1948-69, he became good friends with Helms. At that time, Helms was the general manager of WRAL-TV in Raleigh, and they worked on the contracts to televise NC State basketball games. So, he remembered Helms fondly and often contributed to his campaign. While I never met Helms, I learned from my grandfather that even Helms possessed a soft side.

I didn't realize the full extent of Helms' impact until I moved to New York City after graduating from college. As soon as people found out I was a North Carolinian, I would brace myself for the inevitable barrage of questions as though I was somehow responsible personally for Helms' hooey. At the time, I was a member of the New York Young Republicans, so everyone thought that meant I supported all Republicans, including Jesse. No way. No how. Even when he would make a valid point, his vitriol and venom made me cringe. No wonder New Yorkers thought we were all hicks and hillbillies. My embarrassment that my home state continued to support Helms culminated in '90 when the Harvey Gantt v. Jesse Helms campaign as managed by Dick Morris set a new low in racist campaign ads. From that moment forward, I vowed never to support any candidate who would hire Morris. Hence, I shook my head in disbelief when those who campaigned against Helms were silent during Morris' management of Bill Clinton's '96 re-election campaign.

My prayers are with those who like my grandfather had fond memories of Helms and are mourning the loss of their loved one. But I pray that his passing marks the end of an era in political history that we choose not to repeat.

Addendum: And yes, I celebrate Helms' joining forces with Bono to fight AIDS in Africa. Throughout his long career, I found myself in agreement with him on several occasions. However, even if we were on the same side of an issue ideologically, I had to distance myself from Helms due to his inflammatory rhetoric.

Becky GarrisonBecky Garrison will be featured in the upcoming documentary The Ordinary Radicals, which will be released in September 2008.

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