08 July, 2008

A sad spectacle

"Speak no ill of the dead," I know, but I am not here to speak ill of the dead. I am here to speak ill of the dying.

Former Senator Jesse Helms passed away last week. He was my senator for a short while (1999-2002, when he retired). During that time, I read that he was very responsive to constituents' concerns, regardless of race. I was nevertheless glad that I never had to enter a voting booth where his name was on the ballot box. I won't elaborate. As I say, I do not wish to speak ill of Helms, who has gone to meet God.

Rather, I wish to speak ill of the American conservative movement. After this weekend, it appears more and more certain that the once vibrant and imaginative movement is withering into a decrepit death. Why do I say this?

If you have time and/or interest, visit some standard outlets of the conservative movement and read the adulation poured onto Helms by conservative writers over the weekend. It is somewhat understandable, inasmuch as Helms was a fellow-traveler who stood uncompromisingly for certain conservative principles that are admirable, and should not be compromised.

Now, Helms had once been a segregationist, and to all appearances never apologized for that period in his life, which included not only opposition to the Civil Rights Act but his work on blatantly racist campaigns (the 1950s Senate and Presidential campaigns of certain southern Democrats, and to a lesser extent his own campaigns).

The symptom of the disease lies in the following fact: conservative authors have been, for the most part, in complete denial about this aspect of Helms' career. The first post I happened to read made the the astonishing claim that Helms didn't oppose civil rights; he "opposed a particular vision of them." At best, this is misleading; at worst, it is ill-informed. Helms had opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act in vitriolic fashion. He wasn't in Congress at the time, but he was a well-known public figure in North Carolina. Helms' profound opposition to civil rights, at least during its crucial period, is well-established. The vitriolic opposition at this time of certain white southern Democrats, like Helms, Robert Byrd, Strom Thurmond, James J. Kilpatrick, and others, delayed the inevitable and served only to delay subsequent reconciliation. Imagine if a nation grateful for the sacrifices that black Americans made during World War II finally welcomed them as full citizens, rather than fighting tooth and nail to enshrine Jim Crow laws as inherently sacrosanct. I find it hard to doubt that race relations would be substantially better now.

Also well-established is Helms' failure to express any sort of regret for that opposition. This stands in opposition to the other former segregationists named above. Barry Saunders, a Raleigh reporter who interviewed Helms shortly before his death, has expressed his own regrets that he failed to ask whether Helms would still characterize the Civil Rights Act as unnecessary.*

Another conservative continued this line with,

I have noticed some of the smears lobbed at William Buckley in other places since his death; Jesse Helms is in for even more of it.
Subsequent writers blasted the media for mentioning that Helms had a shady past in civil rights for which he had never apologized, or even shown any indication of regretting.

So far I have encountered all of two conservative authors willing either to observe or to concede that Helms did have problems with civil rights that are not compatible with conservatism:
  • The first was Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor for National Review, who pointed out in a terse and seemingly annoyed remark on National Review's blog The Corner that one of Helms' more controversial Senate campaign ads was problematic at least inasmuch as it came from a "former segregationist". I wonder whether he used "former" because Helms has passed on, or because Helms had, in fact, publicly forsworn segregation? I would really like to know this; if anyone knows, leave a comment.

    But why did it take Ponnuru three days of unabashed adulation from his colleagues (and other conservative outlets) before he got around to this? Subsequent adulation of Helms, coupled with denunciations of anyone who brought up Helms' shadowy past, continued pretty much unabated for another couple of days.

  • Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large of the same magazine, wrote a somewhat more detailed rejection of the Helms "hagiography" (his term). It disappoints me that he glosses over the damage that his colleagues are doing to the conservative movement, in image at least, if not in substance. Goldberg mostly uses his space to scold liberal authors for trying to tar conservatives with the Helms brush, rather than scold his colleagues for tarring conservatism with a see-no-evil brush.

    Again, why so long? Goldberg responded only today, after five days of the Helms-a-thon.

You may think I'm exaggerating when I say that this is a symptom of the death of the American conservative movement. Fair enough, but reflect on this: The anti-free trade, tobacco lobby-beholden, former segregationist Jesse Helms (who never recanted any of those positions in public) has received praise for being a "true conservative", while the pro-free trade, fiscally conservative, pro-life John McCain has been smeared as a Republican In Name Only.**

If the conservative movement has room for a Jesse Helms, but not for a John McCain, how can conservatives wonder why the "Republican" name brand is tarnished?

*In all fairness (and because I genuinely do not wish to speak ill of the dead) I suspect that Helms did have second thoughts about that earlier aspect of his career, just as he eventually changed his position on foreign aid for AIDS. Yet if the first change of heart occured, Helms never appears to have felt a need to make it public. He certainly expressed publicly his shame for not having done more about AIDS, and even that second change of heart occurred only after Helms met with a rock star who, by his own account, did nothing more profound than quote the Bible to the Senator.

**Curiously, Ponnuru and Goldberg are also the only two authors at National Review willing to classify McCain as some kind of conservative. Ponnuru went so far as to speak favorably of McCain back when National Review was advocating, with a straight face, that Mitt Romney was a true conservative's candidate, while McCain was not. Contributing editor Deroy Murdock also looked favorably on McCain back then, but I haven't read anything that Murdock has said on Helms yet. I won't hold my breath, but it would surely be interesting since by himself Murdock is a member of at least two groups whose voting power Helms claimed to fear.


Clemens said...

Good post Jack. I thought much the same about the conservative reaction to Helms. But then, I think the last 8 years in general have just about destroyed conservatism as a principled philosophy. I have lived in NC now for nearly two decades. Believe me, you did not see Helms at his worst (nor did I for that matter). Because of my age, having lived through the Civil Rights struggle, and as a native born Virginian, I have only the darkest feelings about the Republican Party's 'southern strategy.' It worked.

And you have just put your finger on part of the cost.

jack perry said...

Believe me, you did not see Helms at his worst...

I was aware of that. In fact, I don't think I saw anything particularly bad from Helms while I was there; it was merely a matter of the reputation that preceded him.

What make you of the story I've read lately that the real reason southern whites started to vote Republican was economics?