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The legacy of Jesse Helms
Should we remember the late senator as a patriot, or a bigot?
J

esse Helms died on the Fourth of July—“a fitting end for a true American patriot,” said National Review Online in an editorial. He did oppose civil rights in the 1960s—but Helms should be remembered for what he stood for—freedom for oppressed people around the globe, a right to life for the unborn, prayer in schools, and other mainstream conservative causes.

In death it's easy to gloss over Helms’ “record of hate,” said Lisa Duggan in TheNation.com. But the longtime North Carolina politician—known as “Senator No” for the way he used to tie up legislation and block judicial nominations—was “an important bigot,” who “supported inequality at home and violence abroad and gave it all the name Morality.”

Helms stood out as the lonely senator on many 99 to 1 votes, said Marc Thiessen in The Washington Post. “What made Helms stand out was his willingness to stand up for his beliefs before they were widely held”—especially his courageous and unwavering opposition to communism. But what his critics fail to see is that he ended up a mainstream conservative, “because the mainstream moved toward him.”

It reflects horribly on conservatives, said Matthew Iglesias in his blog at The Atlantic, that so many of them are eulogizing Helms as a "brilliant exemplar" of their movement. It's hard to believe they really feel they're "best exemplified by bigotry, lunatic notions about foreign policy, and tobacco subsidies."

Helms will always be remembered as a “racially divisive politician willing to exploit human fears of difference,” said Jack Betts in the Charlotte, N.C., Observer. After all, it was his defense of “the Southern way of life” -- the code used by those who opposed civil rights and integration --that catapulted him into the Senate in 1973, and he never changed.

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