The Case of Jesse Helms

The liberal blogosphere wants to know: Why have conservatives lined up to say kind things about the late Jesse Helms? Partially because nobody wants to speak ill of the dead, but largely because Helms was an sometimes-effective, always-steadfast champion of conservative causes for decades, and there's a sense on the right that the liberal case against Helms-the-awful-bigot is really just the latest manifestation of the long-running liberal attempt to argue that (as William Voegeli puts it in a fine essay on race and the Right in the latest CRB) "the essence of conservatism is and always has been Dixiecrat-ism ... [and] that everything that conservatism has accomplished and stood for since 1965—Reagan, the tax revolt, law-and-order, deregulation, the fight against affirmative action, the critique of the welfare state...everything—is the poisoned fruit of the poisoned tree."

Regular readers will know that I sometimes have sympathy for these sentiments, and that I tend to be sensitive to the way that liberals cry "racism!" in an effort to disarm conservative arguments on issues ranging from crime to affirmative action to Jeremiah Wright. And in that vein, I should note that I'm not convinced that Helms' famous "white hands" ad merits the sort of outraged denunciations that Andrew and Max Boot have offered up today - since if it does, the implication would seem to be that any hard-hitting attack on racial preferences is ipso facto racist.

But a specific ad is one thing; Helms himself is another. He simply was an awful bigot, and worse he was an awful bigot who never expressed a shred of remorse, so far as I know, for his toxic approach to issues ranging from civil rights to HIV to foreign affairs. Far from being the sort of politicians who conservatives ought to defend, out of a sense of issue-by-issue solidarity, he's the sort of politician conservatives ought to carefully distance themselves from, because his political style brought (and continues to bring) intellectual disrepute to almost every cause with which he was associated. Inherent to conservatism is the responsibility to stand up and say to bien-pensant opinion: Just because a bigot opposes something doesn't mean it's a good idea. But the necessity (and difficulty) of making that case, whether the issue is affirmative action or "comprehensive" immigration reform or the NEA and Piss Christ, is all the more reason for conservatives to keep their distance from actual bigots, even (or especially) when they're representing the great state of North Carolina in the U.S. Senate. Jonathan Rauch had it right in 2002: If Ronald Reagan and Helms had similar positions on countless issues, that doesn't prove that Helms was good for conservatism; it only suggests that conservatives should look for more Reagans, and fewer Jesse Helms. I'm happy to defend Helms' views on a variety of issues, but the man himself has no business in the right-wing pantheon, and the conservatives who have used his death as an occasion to argue that he does are doing their movement a grave disservice.