Some politicians are controversial without being important. The history books and newspaper pages are littered with the names of also-rans who managed to snag a few headlines by virtue of scandal rather than substance.
You can’t say the same about Jesse Helms.
Love him or hate him — and quite a few people fall inextricably into one camp or the other — the five-term U.S. senator from North Carolina ranks as a truly important figure in modern American politics.
From here on out, though, the career and legacy of Jesse Helms will be debated in his absence. Helms died on Friday — Independence Day — at age 86.
To understand his relevance, you have to go back to the American South of the 1940s and ’50s. With the issue of racial integration stirring unrest, political candidates who openly opposed equal access for blacks were not unheard of. One of them was Willis Smith, a segregationist who got elected to the U.S. Senate in 1950 with the help of an erstwhile journalist from Raleigh named Jesse Helms.
Before integration, the Democratic Party dominated politics in that part of the country. Historians will note lingering resentments over the Civil War and the Republican Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps integration, seen as another case of the federal government seeking to impose its will on Southern states, stoked some of those old embers.
In any event, the era that marked the civil rights struggle also brought the beginning of a gradual shift that would see many Southern conservatives switch their party loyalties from Democrat to Republican.
Helms, now a member of the GOP, won election to the Senate in 1972 and would stay in office for the next 30 years. Something obviously resonated with the voters, and it wasn’t just integration. He also established a reputation as a fierce critic of communism and a standard-bearer for moral values.
Who knows? Maybe folks just got a kick out of seeing the contrarian “Senator No” tweak his more polished Washington colleagues by blocking nominations and undermining legislation that didn’t square with his beliefs.
Without the likes of Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond and George Wallace — agree with their views or not — America’s political landscape would look a lot different today.
Specifically, states below the Mason-Dixon line and many points west would have a lot less red and a lot more blue. Individual beliefs will determine whether people view that as a good thing or a bad thing, but without a doubt it is an important thing.
And if Jesse Helms hadn’t decided to get involved in politics, it might never have happened.