land of the free
I was sleeping in this morning when my phone buzzed with a text message from the Lobbyist for the Dark Side: "Your old boss died."
I only have one old boss who's famous enough that his death would make news. Doesn't it figure that Jesse Helms would die on the 4th of July? It's somehow fitting for a man who titled his autobiography with a line from the fourth verse of the Star Spangled Banner.
How it was that I came to be an intern for the committee chaired by a person with whose views I vehemently disagree and repudiate is a long story involving a Tennessee Supreme Court justice with whom my daddy used to jog at lunch and an aide to a former Senate majority leader. Working for Helms was one of the worst experiences of my life in many respects. It's there that I learned that I am incapable of working for causes in which I don't believe, a discovery that had a large role in my decision to become an academic rather than a diplomat.
It's disrespectful to knock someone who has died and rude to his family to say negative things about a person they loved. Helms was, if nothing else, consistent in his views. In his later years, he realized (with, of all people, Bono's help) that he needed to be more compassionate to those living with HIV/AIDS, especially to children in Africa who contracted the disease through no actions of their own.
But look, Helms was a racist. There's no way around it. He became a Republican because of the Civil Rights Movement. He sang "Dixie" to Carole Moseley-Braun in an elevator - in 1993. He filibustered making Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a national holiday. He forged close friendships with white supremicist southern Africans like Ian Smith that were based slightly on the fact that both came from tobacco-growing corners, but mostly on their racist views of blacks. He played racial politics with the best of them, and his staff had no problem making racist jokes on a frequent basis - even when those jokes were directed at minority members of the staff. (I spent most of my summer at the committee with my jaw dropped to the floor in disbelief that such things could be said in what was supposed to be polite company.) And, unlike Strom Thurmond, he didn't seem to change his views of race over time. Attitudes like that probably kept a good portion of Helms' constituents voting for him, but that doesn't make it right.
I'm sorry for Dot and her family that they have lost their husband, father, and grandfather today. But our country is better off without the divisive and cruel policies of someone who understood far too late that the tide in our country has turned.